RIYADH: Britain’s outgoing ambassador to Saudi Arabia said it has been a privilege to be in the country for the last five years and witness the changes in the Kingdom firsthand.
Simon Collis joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1978 and has been an ambassador in Iraq, Syria and Qatar. He has also held senior diplomatic positions in Bahrain, Tunisia, Jordan, Dubai and India.
His diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia began a week after King Salman came to the throne in January 2015. A personal highlight was performing the Hajj in 2016 with wife Huda.
The five years that we’ve been here have been five big years, not only for us but five big years ... in the history of Saudi Arabia and certainly in the relationship with the UK,” he told Arab News. “It’s been just a wonderful time.”
He said there used to be concern about the role of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, known as the Mutawa’a or religious police, and its unchecked power.
“There were people that would be nervous about it. There was no music in public places, there was no mixing in restaurants. In 2015 no one would have imagined just how much these changes would be, first with (the reform plan) Vision 2030, then economic, and also social changes, women driving, the removal of the guardianship laws across pretty much everything, and the balancing role of the Mutawa’a.”
He welcomed the government’s emphasis on developing the entertainment and cultural sectors, calling it a “tremendous story,” and said he had enjoyed witnessing the Kingdom’s transformation.
“To see the enthusiasm in a young country, I think a lot of these new sectors, creative entertainment, on top of the existing ones like education, have been a delight to see. Of course, it’s not finished yet. I think this period, these five years, will look like a big moment in the history of the Kingdom.”
Changes in the Kingdom have attracted interest — and greater visitor numbers — from overseas.
The country is gaining a reputation for hosting massive events featuring the world’s biggest names including boxing match Clash On The Dunes pitting Britain’s Anthony Joshua against Mexican-American Andy Ruiz Jr, the electronic dance music festival MDL Beast featuring David Guetta and Steve Aoki, and concerts from K-Pop megastars BTS and Super Junior.
The ambassador said there was a gap between the perception of the Kingdom and the country’s on-the-ground reality.
“In any country, there is a gap between the perception that the image that exists in the world, and the reality that you find. This is true of any country. That gap between the perception and reality has been bigger in relation to Saudi Arabia than to any other country that I’ve lived in. So, the result is once people visit and they see for themselves, then they change their overall perception. They change their minds, and this is a very powerful thing.”
Tens of thousands of UK nationals visit the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah every year to perform Hajj and Umrah, but the reasons to visit the country are increasing.
Collis said that 43,000 people from the UK had taken advantage of a new e-visa system launched last October to visit Saudi Arabia, the highest number in the world.
“Every year we’ve seen the number of Saudi nationals visiting the UK increase, now it’s coming the other way,” Collis said. “With a population of less than 70 million, and it’s the No. 1 country visiting Saudi Arabia more than any other country, I’m very proud of that. I would say that of the hundreds and thousands of British people who I have met visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time, every single person I have met has left with a more positive (outlook) than the one that they arrived with. So, more visits must mean more people have a better idea of the realities of this country, society and its people.”
Collis said he had met many Saudis and forged friendships with them. People in the Kingdom had integrity and were straightforward, and the ambassador had special praise for the younger generation saying there was a “natural enjoyment” when he sat with them to talk. They were very aware, he added.
His regard for young Saudis is evident. He launched the Alumni Awards, which recognize Saudi students who have returned to the Kingdom, excelled and succeeded in their professions or made an impact in their communities. With more than 100,000 Saudis studying in the UK over the last 10 years, the program will be developed in order to increase engagement with them once they return to Saudi Arabia.
The national and global awards initiative is aimed at showcasing the impact and value of a UK higher education, and winners and finalists are leaders in their fields.
“The Alumni Awards are fun. What the award looks at, whether it’s an entrepreneur or professional or social category, it’s not what did you do in the UK with your studies, it’s when you got your qualification, what did you do in Saudi Arabia when you came back. How did you use it? It’s about what use you put it to, not what you get, but how did you use it to further your own career, your life and that of your community and others around you,” Collis said.
Collis is succeeded as the UK’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia by Neil Crompton, who takes up the role next month.