RIYADH: What are the odds of a grandson working in a foreign country for the same mission as his grandfather 70 years ago? This is the story of Adrien Lacroix, trade and investment counsellor for Wallonia, Belgium, and his grandfather Roger Lacroix, who worked for the same mission from 1950—1957, as a counsellor in the Office Belge du Commerce Extérieur, in charge of foreign trade.
Roger was sent regularly on missions abroad to assist with international trade fairs, conduct market studies, and help with delegation visits, and Adrien is following in his footsteps at the embassy in Saudi Arabia.
“I work for the Wallonia Trade and Investment Agency. My missions in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen are twofold: I’m here to help Belgian companies, more importantly, Walloon companies (the French-speaking part of Belgium) to develop in Saudi Arabia, find partners, and help them with missions or delegations on the one hand, and attract the attention of local investors to the potential of the Walloon economy on the other hand. In other words, my job is about improving and strengthening trade relations between both countries,” Adrien told Arab News.
He did not know about his grandfather’s trip to Saudi Arabia until last year when he moved to Riyadh as his first posting. One of his relatives mentioned that Roger lived in the Middle East for a while.
Roger died quite a long time ago, at the age of 49, when Adrien’s father was only nine years old, so Adrien never met him in person.
“I was never told anything about his previous job except vague information that he was traveling, that he was involved in business and that he was working with the state as a public servant,” said Adrien.
Adrien looked up some of his grandfather’s documents and found his original passport in his grandmother’s archives.
This summer, Adrien went to the diplomatic archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belgium and found that Roger was sent to conduct market studies in nine Middle East countries.
One of the documents that Adrien Found was a study that Roger did on Saudi Arabia, called “The West’s View: Saudi Arabia in the 1950s.” He said: “The study done in Saudi Arabia was quite prominent because the country was very little known at the time.”
The text offers a dive into old Saudi Arabia. It reports on the country’s geographical, economic and social situation from the point of view of a Belgian government envoy who wished to improve business activities with the Kingdom. The country was in full development during the reign of King Abdulaziz, nearly fifteen years after the discovery of oil.
The paper describes the major projects underway in the Kingdom back then, mainly financed by royalties from oil exploitation. The construction of a pipeline leading to the Mediterranean, jetties at the ports of Jeddah and Dammam, and the planning of a major road network connecting Saudi Arabia to all the centers of the Arabian Peninsula are all examples of the tremendous progress these new revenues made possible at the time.
In a way, the study uncovers the tale of a technological revolution similar to that of Japan’s Meiji era, back in the 19th century. Saudi Arabia, which derived most of its profits from the pilgrims’ visits (back then, around 150,000 pilgrims visited Makkah each year) before discovering its oil reservoirs, has become a highly coveted trading partner and investment ground for the West.
At the time of Roger’s publication, Riyadh had a population of 50,000, and the Bedouin population dominated the country. The Saudis became very interested in popular food products such as butter or canned fruits and vegetables. As a symbol of the country’s new openness, Jeddah had barely torn down its walls to make way for new hangars, warehouses, and private residences.
Roger aptly concludes in his study: “Saudi Arabia, which has long been shut before Western civilization, is giving us our chance. It is up to us to seize it.”
Adrien said: “You have to imagine in what kind of environment Roger was living, the travel conditions in 1950, the road connections as we see the main street or the road from Jeddah to Mecca, the only asphalted road at the time. This to me was quite impressive ... the work that he has done, gathering all this information, taking pictures, and traveling at that time to all of these countries.”
According to Adrien, Belgium had no embassy in Saudi Arabia during his grandfather’s posting; as the Kingdom rapidly grew, an embassy was needed.
“The first Embassy of Belgium opened in 1955 in Jeddah. Thanks to Roger’s contribution, the Belgian state decided that it was crucial to have a physical presence inside Saudi Arabia, especially to help our companies to bid on projects, to maintain stronger ties with business partners, and to advertise the Belgium talents and economy and products that could be a good fit for the Saudi Arabian economy,” he added.
Adrien pointed out how his grandfather’s study in 1950 had some remarks that still apply today.
Roger mentioned that products from Belgium were a perfect fit for the development of the Saudi economy at the time.
“Most of what we were exporting at the time was cement, iron, and steel products used in the construction sector and railway equipment. Saudi Arabia was developing quickly thanks to the growth of the oil and gas industry and needed these construction products and transport equipment.”
Today, Belgium is exporting chemicals and pharmaceuticals, such as vaccines, to the Kingdom.
Roger highlighted in his study that Belgian entrepreneurs had to have a strong presence in the Kingdom and come physically as Saudis and businessmen needed to see them in person.
“You could not just send an offer by mail, and that is still very true today. Saudi business partners need to see you, talk to you, maintain the link with their Belgian counterpart because culturally, interpersonal relations are crucial in Saudi Arabia,” said Adrien.
Adrien wished his grandfather was alive so that he could chat about what he did, and on his impressions of Saudi Arabia. “I would love to tell him how much the country has changed. I think that’s something that you would not have expected at that time. It is quite incredible and so thrilling to be part of that change now. I would also like him to assess my work because I think highly of him.”
On a note to the Saudi business community, Adrien advises Saudi investors that if they are looking for innovative solutions from abroad, they should consider other suppliers.
“Although mostly unknown to the lay audience, Belgium is a world-class champion in sectors in line with Vision 2030 such as healthcare, hydrogen, entertainment, mechanical engineering, food and beverages or logistics.”
He said that the business community is welcome to reach out to the embassy. “I will gladly put you in contact with the right people so that together we achieve wonders. (It is) not a coincidence that (the) famous Arabic proverb ‘unity is power’ resembles the Belgian motto ‘unity makes strength’.”
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