Frankly Speaking: Groundwork being laid for Gulf economic union by 2025, says GCC chief Nayef Al-Hajraf

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Updated 20 December 2021

Frankly Speaking: Groundwork being laid for Gulf economic union by 2025, says GCC chief Nayef Al-Hajraf

GCC Secretary-General Nayef Al-Hajraf told Arab News about a raft of possible measures to enhance political integration between member states, such as a special ‘business visa’ to aid commerce. (AN Photo)
  • Al-Hajraf says work underway on customs union, common market and lifting of potential barriers
  • He gave his views on the “Frankly Speaking” series of video interviews with regional and international policymakers

DUBAI: The Gulf Cooperation Council is pressing ahead with plans for an economic union between its six members in just four years’ time, despite a “very challenging” timetable, the secretary-general of the GCC told Arab News.

Nayef Al-Hajjraf, who took over the organization’s top job in 2020, said that the verdict of last week’s GCC summit was conclusive. “The directions or the decisions made by the supreme council are very clear — it has been set as a deadline 2025. There is a lot of work ongoing. We are working on the customs union, we are working on the common market, and also lifting the barriers that might be in between.”

He added: “I know 2025 is around the corner. There is a lot of work that needs to be done for the next four years. We have to emphasize that we are not starting from scratch, there is huge work that we conducted and completed actually over the last 20 years since the custom union was announced in 2003.”

Al-Hajjraf underlined the GCC’s commitment to union on “Frankly Speaking,” the series of video interviews with leading regional and global policymakers. He was speaking after the 42nd summit of GCC leaders in Riyadh last week.

In the course of a wide-ranging interview, he also talked of the possibility of further political integration in the GCC, the need for a unified rate of value-added tax across the organization, the desirability of a special “business visa” to aid commerce, and the GCC’s commitment to mutual defense security.

He also pledged the GCC to work toward a fully fledged economic and political union, an ambition set out by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and reinforced by King Salman in 2015. “We are fully dedicated to implement what was adopted by King Salman’s vision in 2015,” Al-Hajjraf said.

Al-Hajjraf, formerly the minister of finance of Kuwait, praised the “fundamental achievements, the milestones” of GCC unity, and said that issues that had been contentious in the past, such as the location of a GCC central bank and a common currency, were “technical issues” that could be resolved because “the political will is there and the direction is very clear.”

He said that VAT rates, which at the moment vary from zero to 15 percent across different GCC countries, could eventually be unified. The global pandemic had a “significant impact” on VAT policy, he said.

“That was the reason some countries raised their VAT to 15 percent — that’s in Saudi Arabia, for example — and to 10 recently in Bahrain, while in Oman and UAE they maintain the 5 percent, and in Qatar they have 5 percent for excise tax but no VAT. In Kuwait, they still work with the National Assembly to get the approval for both VAT and excise taxes,” he said.

“I think within a time frame this should be unified. This will be discussed for the coming period and we hope that we’ll reach the unified percentage,” he added.

Al-Hajjraf also held out the prospect of the introduction of a special visa for business travelers in the GCC in order to facilitate cross-border trade.

“That’s a great idea. It is on our agenda. It has been discussed last year at several meetings and we hope that soon we will conclude this.”

He added: “You know that this requires a lot of approvals from different governmental agencies within the six member states. It has been discussed and, hopefully, we’ll be able to conclude it and then we will announce it when it is finalized.”

On the possibility of GCC enlargement, Al-Hajjraf said the plan was to “intensify” relations with non-GCC countries such as Jordan and Morocco, both mentioned as potential full members previously by King Abdullah.

“For the time being this kind of strategic relation is very important for the GCC, as well as for Jordan and Morocco, and we are intending to intensify this kind of relation because we strongly believe that we have a role to stabilize not only the region, but to be the voice of wisdom across the Arab world as well,” he said.

Egypt, too, will play an increasingly influential role in regional affairs and in relations with the GCC, he said. “Egypt is at the heart of the Arab world and has a historical role. The GCC at the same time is also a stabilizer, and is fulfilling its objective to civilize and maintain the peace and security in the region. So getting together is just something we are doing all the time. We need to see that this relation is taking an institutionalized way.”

The summit reiterated its support for UN resolutions recognizing Morocco’s right to the Western Sahara, and the country’s need for “security, stability and territorial integrity,” even at the risk of alienating neighboring Algeria. “That was our view and our belief from day one,” he said.

The 42nd summit also restated its long-standing support for the Palestinians and their rights to a two-state solution within the 1967 borders, although two members of the GCC, the UAE and Bahrain, have normalized relations with Israel.

“Even though two countries have signed a peace agreement with Israel according to the Abraham Accord — which were sovereign decisions we respect very much — the two-state solution is our view how to solve this long-lasting conflict, a conflict that helps no one. I don’t think the Palestinians or the Israelis are benefiting from continuing the status quo,” he said.

The GCC was waiting for a response from the Israelis on the two-state proposals, but Al-Hajjraf said the 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital were essential features of any peace initiative.

The GCC’s joint defense treaty, which specifies that a military attack on one member is an attack on all, was also underlined at the recent summit. Al-Hajjraf said that it will continue be a “binding” agreement, as it had been when Iraq attacked Kuwait in 1990.

He condemned continuing military support from Iran to the Houthi militia in Yemen, which he said was making matters worse on the ground and causing needles civilian casualties , and added that the GCC was fully supporting the peace-seeking efforts of the US and UN special envoys on Yemen, as well as the role of Oman.

The position of the Emirati islands in the Gulf that have been occupied by Iran for the past 50 years should be resolved by dialogue, negotiation and through the international courts, he said.

The GCC should be more involved in negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear plans, he said, adding that the forum should be widened to include talks about Tehran’s aggressive expansionist policies in the region.

“This should be a one package. The Vienna talks should not be limited to resuming the JCPOA at all, but it should take the whole package all at once. We have also expressed our demand to be there at the negotiation table because we strongly believe that the Iranian nuclear program will not affect Washington, which is 10,000 miles from the area, but it will affect us — we are only 100 miles from their nuclear capabilities or facilities,” he said.

Al-Hajjraf reiterated the GCC’s support for the people of Lebanon, but criticized the influence of Hezbollah and Iran in the country’s internal affairs, and the negligence displayed by the country’s political elites. “They need to start thinking how to help themselves first and then seek the help from outside,” he said.

The AlUla summit in January 2021 marked the end of rifts and differences within the GCC, he said, and a “new beginning” for the organization, cemented by the regional tour of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman before last week’s summit.

“These are very important milestones and we are very satisfied that this has been put behind us and we are looking to move forward,” he said.


Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud receives honorary doctorate from Marymount University

Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud received an honorary doctorate from Marymount University in Virginia. (Supplied)
Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud received an honorary doctorate from Marymount University in Virginia. (Supplied)
Updated 17 May 2022

Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud receives honorary doctorate from Marymount University

Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud received an honorary doctorate from Marymount University in Virginia. (Supplied)
  • The princess thanks Marymount University for hosting Saudi students throughout the years

RIYADH: Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, received an honorary doctorate from Marymount University in Virginia last Friday in honor of her work empowering women across sectors in the Kingdom and globally.

The president of Marymount University, Dr. Irma Becerra, presented Princess Reema with the honorary degree — her first — at the commencement ceremony.

The Saudi ambassador gave the commencement address for the College of Health and Education graduates at the university.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Princess Reema gave the commencement address for the College of Health and Education graduates at the university.

• She congratulated the graduates and thanked the university for hosting Saudi students throughout the years.

In her address, she congratulated the graduates and thanked the university for hosting Saudi students throughout the years.

Princess Reema, who graduated from George Washington University with a degree in museum studies, has an extensive career working towards the empowerment of women in both the private and public sectors.

From 2007 to 2015, she was CEO of Alfa International Co. Ltd. — Harvey Nichols Riyadh, a multi-brand luxury retail company. During her time in this position, she commissioned the study “Obstacles for Women in the Workplace.” The study set the tone for female inclusion in retail and resulted in the opening of the first workplace nursery.

In 2013, she founded Alf Khair, a social enterprise aimed at elevating the professional capital of Saudi women through a curriculum developed to enable financial self-sufficiency.

In 2016, Princess Reema left the private sector to begin a career in public service as vice president of women’s affairs at the Saudi General Sports Authority, where she developed policies and programs that benefited women and children throughout Saudi Arabia.

In 2018, she was also appointed president of the Mass Participation Federation, making her the first woman to lead a multi-sports federation in the Kingdom, a role she occupied until her appointment as Saudi ambassador to the US.


Lights, cameras, action… and more besides, at the Saudi Entertainment and Amusement Expo

Lights, cameras, action… and more besides, at the Saudi Entertainment and Amusement Expo
Updated 17 May 2022

Lights, cameras, action… and more besides, at the Saudi Entertainment and Amusement Expo

Lights, cameras, action… and more besides, at the Saudi Entertainment and Amusement Expo
  • Developers and manufacturers in the entertainment sector are showcasing innovative, cutting-edge products and services during the event in Riyadh
  • It is taking place alongside the Saudi Light and Sound Expo, the first dedicated event in the Kingdom for professional lighting and audio equipment

RIYADH: The Saudi Entertainment and Amusement Expo and Summit began in Riyadh on Monday, alongside the Saudi Light and Sound Expo, the first dedicated event in the Kingdom for professional lighting and audio equipment.

The three-day dual event at the Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Center showcases thousands of cutting-edge products and solutions for the entertainment sector, and offers professionals in the leisure and entertainment sector the chance to discover new products, learn about the most exciting innovations in the sector, network and do business with vendors.

The international exhibitors are presenting a wide range of products and services, including thrill rides, playground equipment, arcade machines, food and beverage equipment, professional lighting rigs, sound systems, event technology, security tools, and marketing solutions.

Attendees can experience a variety of fun events and activities while engaging with local, regional and global entertainment communities at the Amusement Services International pavilion during the expo, where the line-up includes virtual reality experiences, the latest video and arcade games, and carnival attractions, to name but a few.

Among the technology on show is the 3Motion simulator, which uses hydraulic actuators with precise control to deliver the same dynamic feedback you would get when driving a real racing car. Meanwhile SODIKART, a leader in the karting industry, presents its latest products and services, including a kart simulator.

Matt Wells, the CEO of Frontgrid, which owns ParadropVR, a virtual reality flying experience, told Arab News: “I am very happy to be here having a great time at the SEA summit and looking forward to working with the people here.”

In March, Frontgrid announced an exclusive distribution partnership with ASI to support the continued growth and success of ParadropVR. ASI is now Frontgrid’s distributor across the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE, and in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

Marloes Knippenberg, the CEO of lifestyle operator Kerten Hospitality is appearing as a panelist at the summit.

“The world has really changed; consumer behavior has changed a lot,” he told Arab News. “More than 60 percent of the Saudi population is under 35 and the expectations from them as consumers has really changed.

“When you look at this conference, at the perfect timing, I think never was there so much conversation like today, with a lot more opportunity for the hospitality sector in the entertainment segment. There are a lot more expectations and I am looking forward to it.”

The SEA and SLS expos were expected to attract more than 10,000 visitors. In addition to the exhibitors showcasing business opportunities, entertainment options, innovations, and technology, there are also sessions to discuss trends and future visions within the industry, and networking events.

The inaugural SLS Expo, meanwhile, offers businesses and developers the chance to show off their products and services through specially staged laser, light and sound shows.

RS Research and Strategy will share insights from its Voice of The Market research, conducted on behalf of the expo, to offer a deeper understanding of the factors that can help generate opportunities, or create challenges, for those considering entering the light and sound or entertainment markets.

Saudi Arabia has embarked in recent years on a rapid transformation that is not only economic in nature but also cultural, by identifying travel, tourism and entertainment as priority sectors as part of the nation’s Vision 2030 economic diversification initiative.

The General Entertainment Authority was founded in 2016 to organize, develop and lead the entertainment sector in the country, triggering a transformation and the introduction of a wide range of exciting entertainment options. Since then, the sector has grown exponentially in the Kingdom, helping to improve the quality of life of residents and contributing to economic development by creating investment opportunities and thousands of jobs.

The SEA expo, which was launched four years ago, is the only trade show in the country dedicated to the flourishing leisure and entertainment sectors.

“Saudi Arabia is leading the way in encouraging collaboration and action by thinking big,” said Sarkis Kahwajian, SEA Expo’s event director. “This will lead to a strong and sustainable future for the entertainment and amusement industry.

“Saudi Arabia is developing its tourism destinations, which represent great opportunities, especially since the Kingdom’s wealth of spectacular landscapes and cultural heritage is still unknown to the international traveler.”

Yael Coifman, a senior partner at Leisure Development Partners and the president of the Europe and Middle East division of the Themed Entertainment Association, said: “The goals proposed as part of the entertainment strategy for KSA are inspiring and visionary.

“We think there is real potential in this market and although some of the members are already involved in the planning, there are opportunities for many others to influence and help shape the future of the entertainment industry in the Middle East, bringing global knowledge to the region.”

One example of the ways in which the entertainment sector in Saudi Arabia is evolving was the decision by the government in 2018 to end a 30-year ban on cinemas. By the end of 2021, 45 movie theaters had opened in the country and screened more than 1,000 films. In addition, the Red Sea International Film Festival was launched in 2019 and the inaugural event took place in December last year.

It is expected that by 2030 there will be 350 cinemas and 2,500 movie screens in Saudi Arabia, and the industry will be worth about $1 billion.

The development and expansion of the entertainment sector in the Kingdom has spawned an ambitious construction pipeline of movie theaters, theme parks and sports-related infrastructure, along with the hosting of live mega events.

In addition, the great success of Saudi Seasons — an annual series of festivals across the country featuring concerts, motor racing, pop-up restaurants, auto shows and other forms of entertainment — have shown the huge demand in the sector.

The GEA has pledged to invest up to $64 billion by 2028 to develop the Kingdom’s domestic entertainment sector.

In terms of tourism, Saudi authorities plan to welcome more than 100 million visitors each year by 2030, and to this end have implemented numerous related initiatives, including an electronic visa system for citizens of 49 countries.


Saudi ministry creates ‘skill development’ strategy to enhance Saudization

Abdullah Abuthnain speaking at the opening session of the conference. (HRDF)
Abdullah Abuthnain speaking at the opening session of the conference. (HRDF)
Updated 17 May 2022

Saudi ministry creates ‘skill development’ strategy to enhance Saudization

Abdullah Abuthnain speaking at the opening session of the conference. (HRDF)
  • The ministry has established a “forecasting of supply and demand” unit within the human capacity development program, which will provide researchers with data, information and insights into labor market trends

RIYADH: The Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development is focusing on a skills strategy to improve professional standards for workers and those entering the labor market, according to Abdullah Abuthnain, the vice minister.

Abuthnain said that the strategy will benefit more than 200 professions, with skills councils establishing employment standards, as well as on-the-job training programs, in important economic sectors.

FASTFACT

The strategy will benefit more than 200 professions, with skills councils establishing employment standards, as well as on-the-job training programs, in important economic sectors.

The vice minister made his comments during the inaugural Scientific Conference for Labor Market Research, Studies and Indicators, organized by the National Labor Observatory, an affiliate of the Human Resources Development Fund, in collaboration with Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University.

Academics and professionals gathered in Riyadh on Tuesday for the First Scientific Conference for Labor Market Research, Studies, and Indicators organized by Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University.  (Supplied/HRDF)

During the opening session of the two-day conference in Riyadh on Tuesday, Abuthnain said that Saudi Arabia’s labor market is presently in “a phase of big reforms,” including eight strategic labor market themes and 25 development initiatives.

The ministry has established a “forecasting of supply and demand” unit within the human capacity development program, which will provide researchers with data, information and insights into labor market trends.

The unit identifies opportunities and challenges facing the labor market by issuing specialized reports showing future trends, he said, adding that the unit will primarily assist educational institutions in designing educational and training programs.

Abuthnain expressed optimism about the Kingdom’s labor market, which has seen “positive developments in its indicators and gains,” noting that more than 2 million Saudis now work in the private sector, “the highest figure historically speaking.”

Mohammad Aalmughaiseb, Director of Research and Studies Department at the National Labor Observatory (NLO), Dr. Abdullah Abuthnain, Vice Minister of Human Resources and Social Development for Labor, Dr. Ahmed Al-Ameri, President of Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University, Dr. Lilac Al-Safadi, President of Saudi Electronic University and Dr. Enas Al-Issa, Director of Noura University. (Supplied/ HRDF)

Economic participation has reached 51 percent, while economic participation of Saudi women has also reached 35 percent, “the highest figure historically.”

Turki Al-Jawini, director-general of HRDF, said that the fund had redesigned support programs with a focus on the impact assessment and analysis of big data; their relevance to the needs of beneficiaries; the possibility of measuring their reach, impact and efficiency; and the application of a governance model that enables the fund to adjust the design of the program to suit changing market needs.

“We at HRDF will work to develop and implement labor market policies by creating a sustainable national workforce, developing human cadres’ skills, providing them with knowledge and qualifications, and aligning them with labor market and job needs,” he said.

“We will use a strategy that prioritizes the beneficiary in the design and delivery of works and services and modernizes the human resources system by utilizing visions and sketching future labor market directions.”

Al-Jawini said that the HRDF strategy focused on three main objectives: Reducing the gap between education outcomes and labor market needs, increasing the efficiency of matching supply and demand, and enabling sustainable employment for groups facing labor market challenges.

Among the most significant problems for graduates is understanding labor market needs, linking labor market requirements with their skills, having the necessary experience, and possessing the most in-demand soft skills.

Direct coaching and mentoring for leaders comes within the framework of programs that support and empower women in the labor market, he said.

About 1,000 female leaders benefited from the programs, which helped find jobs for more than 65,000 women in private sector companies. Around 3,500 Saudi mothers benefited from Qurrah, a program that supports child care.

Al-Jawini said that about 51,000 Saudi women employees benefited from Wusool, a program that supports transport for female workers. About 7,000 job-seekers were employed in 2021, thanks to the Tamheer program, which offers female workers on-the-job training.

Mishaal Aledwani, professor of administration and educational planning at Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University, said that Saudi universities are undergoing substantial change as a result of external developments, as well as advances in technology and knowledge development.

The Saudi labor market needs skilled graduates who can work efficiently. Saudi universities face challenges maintaining their status and excellence, both locally and internationally, through the use of innovative learning methods and the provision of training programs for students, Aledwani said.

According to the former dean of the faculty of social sciences, Saudi universities’ performance in adapting graduates to the needs of the labor market is “average.”

Aledwani said that his research had revealed that one of the most significant challenges facing universities is inadequate training and qualification of students before they enter the labor market.

This includes poor coordination between universities and employers to determine the skills graduates need.

Zaid Al-Khumishi, educational supervisor at the Saudi Ministry of Education, discussed the application of artificial intelligence in human resource professional development to suit the needs of the Saudi labor market.

Al-Khumishi has worked in the education industry for almost two decades, recruiting specialists in electronic technology to build training programs employing artificial intelligence.

He suggested designing artificial intelligence-based training programs that meet the needs of the Saudi labor market and workers “by conducting a comprehensive survey of those needs and setting priorities for them to build training programs that meet those needs.”


Deal to provide healthcare services in Diriyah signed

The agreement was signed by Jerry Inzerillo, CEO of the authority, and Abdullah bin Khathlan, CEO of Riyadh Third Health Cluster
The agreement was signed by Jerry Inzerillo, CEO of the authority, and Abdullah bin Khathlan, CEO of Riyadh Third Health Cluster
Updated 17 May 2022

Deal to provide healthcare services in Diriyah signed

The agreement was signed by Jerry Inzerillo, CEO of the authority, and Abdullah bin Khathlan, CEO of Riyadh Third Health Cluster
  • Inzerillo added that both parties will work together to support the local community’s participation in international healthcare days using events and social media

RIYADH: The Diriyah Gate Development Authority has signed an agreement with the Riyadh Third Health Cluster to collaborate on the provision of healthcare and community services for residents of Diriyah.
The agreement was signed by Jerry Inzerillo, chief executive officer of the authority, and Abdullah bin Khathlan, CEO of Riyadh Third Health Cluster.
Inzerillo highlighted the importance of cooperation in joint initiatives and programs for community development in Diriyah and the necessity of collaboration to increase health awareness and the healthcare services offered in the city.
He added that both parties will work together to support the local community’s participation in international healthcare days using events and social media.
Bin Khathlan said the agreement will boost efforts to spread the culture of healthcare volunteering, adding that the Riyadh Third Health Cluster is committed to providing the best possible healthcare “in a comprehensive, sustainable way.”
The Diriyah Gate Development Authority aims to improve the quality of life within the entire Diriyah district by introducing regulations and guidelines which are designed to preserve the area unique cultural status within the Kingdom, while maintaining Saudi heritage.

 


Tabuk governor receives Hirofumi Miyake

Tabuk Gov. Prince Fahd bin Sultan meets Hirofumi Miyake, Deputy Head of Mission of the Embassy of Japan in Saudi Arabia. (SPA)
Tabuk Gov. Prince Fahd bin Sultan meets Hirofumi Miyake, Deputy Head of Mission of the Embassy of Japan in Saudi Arabia. (SPA)
Updated 17 May 2022

Tabuk governor receives Hirofumi Miyake

Tabuk Gov. Prince Fahd bin Sultan meets Hirofumi Miyake, Deputy Head of Mission of the Embassy of Japan in Saudi Arabia. (SPA)
  • In recent years, the bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and Japan has grown, especially after the launch of the Saudi-Japan Vision 2030 in the year 2017

TABUK: Tabuk Gov. Prince Fahd bin Sultan received Deputy Head of Mission of the Embassy of Japan in Saudi Arabia Hirofumi Miyake and his delegation as it visited the area.
After welcoming Miyake and his team, Prince Fahd commended the deep-rooted relations between the two friendly countries, and the joint cooperation in various areas, and both parties exchanged friendly conversations and discussed topics of common interest.
Miyake expressed his happiness at meeting Prince Fahd and praised Tabuk’s developmental progress in all crucial areas. He also presented the Tabuk governor with a memento at the end of the reception.  
In recent years, the bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and Japan has grown, especially after the launch of the Saudi-Japan Vision 2030 in the year 2017. Many events and activities have been held recently in various Saudi cities that are rich in cultural diversity.
Despite the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, both the Kingdom and Japan have made every effort to accomplish these projects and ensure that their bilateral relations flourish.
In March, Japanese premier held talks with the Saudi leadership regarding Saudi oil output in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.