LONDON: Economic and trade relations between the UK and Saudi Arabia were further cemented in London this week as delegations from the two countries convened to mark the progress of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 initiative and explore fresh avenues for collaboration.
The UK Saudi Business, Trade and Partnership Forum, hosted at Mansion House in the heart of the City of London by the Saudi British Joint Business Council and the Saudi National Competitiveness Center, drew government officials, business leaders, and experts from both nations.
While acknowledging the accomplishments thus far, Emad Al-Thukair, co-chairman of the Saudi British Joint Business Council, emphasized that the partnership between the two countries has only “scratched the surface.”
“The opportunities are huge,” Al-Thukair told Arab News, adding: “On one hand, the UK seeks more markets, while Saudi Arabia craves technology and opportunities, fostering a wealth of knowledge transfer.
“On the flip side, the UK’s current economic landscape presents abundant opportunities for Saudi funds on the lookout.”
Al-Thukair expressed optimism that the $21.4 billion trade volume figure will multiply significantly over the next two to three years, with opportunities flourishing in both Saudi Arabia and the UK.
In 2022, trade exchanged between the countries experienced a surge of 68 percent compared to the previous year, with the UK’s exports to Saudi Arabia reaching a value of $15.17 billion, while imports from the Kingdom amounted to $6.39 billion.
Discussions at the event revolved around investment opportunities and trade agreements, as well as private sector cooperation in various sectors such as finance, clean energy, education, healthcare, and creative industries.
Speaking to Arab News, UK Minister for Investment Dominic Johnson shared an upbeat perspective on UK-Saudi Arabia business relations, with a special focus on the opportunities in asset management and financial services.
The former entrepreneur argued the UK can bring diverse investment expertise to Saudi Arabia, helping it to branch out from broad-based equity investments into specialized fields like private equity and venture capital.
“I always strive to place my team in the region, as it creates a powerful ripple effect,” said Johnson.
“It brings in individuals with knowledge of various investment types, crucial for transitioning from broad-based equity investments to more specialized, illiquid infrastructure like private equity, venture capital, and the like – all of which will fuel the economy,” he added.
While Johnson acknowledged London’s central role in Saudi Arabia’s financial growth, he expressed his desire to see more Saudi investments spread throughout the UK, particularly the northeast of England.
The UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia Neil Crompton echoed similar sentiments in his opening remarks, saying: “I take great pleasure in witnessing the people-to-people connections in these new development areas.”
He added: “SABIC (Saudi Basic Industries Corp) invested heavily in ICI (Imperial Chemical Industry), alfanar put money into Teesside for clean energy fuel, and Newcastle United, who were struggling 16 months ago, managed to secure a spot in the Champions League this year.
“As a Sunderland supporter is a source of considerable pain to me, but someone once proudly mentioned that the value of their investment has doubled since then.”
Last year, Saudi group alfanar invested $1 billion to launch Lighthouse Green Fuels Energy, the UK’s first company to produce sustainable aviation fuel from waste on a large scale, creating 240 jobs in North England’s Port Clarence site.
In 2021, Saudi petrochemical giant SABIC announced a $1.37 billion investment at its Teesside facility in the northeast of England, targeting decarbonization.
During the event, participants also seized the moment to reflect upon and celebrate the achievements made under the Vision 2030 initiative.
Launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016, Vision 2030 is currently at the halfway point of its timeline, working towards revitalizing the Kingdom’s economy and enhancing key sectors such as health, tourism, infrastructure, and education.
Majid Al-Kassabi, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Commerce, declared to the forum that “today, Saudi Arabia is a different Saudi Arabia,” emphasizing the rapid advancements made towards the Kingdom’s development and transformation agenda.
Al-Kassabi credited the Kingdom’s leadership for the initiative’s success, stating: “It’s not a strategy, it’s all about execution which is the key success factor.”
He added: “Why did we succeed so far? Leadership. Change does not come from the bottom; change has to come from the top. Anybody can steer a ship, but it takes a captain to navigate a course.”
Further private sector participation was also one of the key topics raised during the forum.
Al-Kassabi highlighted that while governmental relations remain strong and continue to foster a thriving business ecosystem, private sector participation is becoming increasingly vital.
To make it easier for foreign private enterprises to enter the Kingdom, Saudi authorities have introduced a range of initiatives, including the Saudi Business Centre, a one-stop-shop offering bureaucratic support to businesses looking to embark on ventures in the Kingdom.
Al-Kassabi encouraged potential investors to visit the Kingdom, assuring them that they would be connected with the right people, government officials, or private sector representatives to explore opportunities based on their interests. “Because seeing is believing,” he added.
Both the Saudi and UK delegations emphasized the importance of visiting Saudi Arabia to truly grasp the vast opportunities available.
Prince Khalid bin Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the UK, was among several speakers urging British businesspeople who have not yet visited Riyadh to do so.
“Certainly not in my lifetime have I seen anything like what’s happening in Saudi today,” he said, adding: “What we have managed to accomplish in Saudi Arabia over the last seven years is revolutionary.
“You must get there. There are flights every day. Get on one and come and see for yourself.
“It is magnificent what’s happening. It is remarkable. It’s exciting. The energy in the country could power a rocket to the moon.”
Hailed as a triumph by both parties, the forum is expected to pave the way for even more fruitful collaboration between Saudi Arabia and the UK in the years ahead.
During an interview with Arab News, Saudi British Joint Business Council’s CEO Chris Innes-Hopkins praised the atmosphere that filled the room as participants gathered to engage in discussions, celebrate achievements, and explore new possibilities related to Saudi Vision 2030.
Innes-Hopkins highlighted the Council’s ability to foster collaborations between Saudi Arabia and the UK through the organization of network-led events, with a specific focus on emerging sectors such as clean technology and health tech.
He further emphasized the mutually beneficial nature of the Saudi-British relationship, citing the example of Lean Technologies, a successful fintech company that not only found traction in Saudi Arabia but also established an office in London to leverage the talent pool and serve as a gateway to the Middle East market.
Expressing his pride, Innes-Hopkins acknowledged the presence of numerous smaller companies in the audience, recognizing their vital role in forging connections and driving the conversation forward.
“After all, this is what the council is all about. We are not just a chamber of commerce; we are a dynamic business network that connects, inspires, and collaborates for a brighter future,” concluded Innes-Hopkins.