Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Guertin, Ms. Baker and the American Electronics Association – thank you for inviting me to speak here today. I will keep my remarks brief, so there is plenty of time for questions.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have a long history of cooperation together. Certainly we’ve gone through ups and downs. We’ve gone through difficult periods and easy periods, and I think it will continue to be this way. But this is the nature of any relationship, whether between friends or between countries. Ultimately, we always return to seeing the real reason why we stick it out with one another, because quite simply, we work well together.
Right now, I believe our relations on a government-to-government basis are very strong. After two meetings between King Abdullah and President Bush during the last three years – and a lot of work in between – our countries have regained a level of understanding that existed before September 11. In many ways, our cooperation is actually better than it has ever been.
That’s at the top level. In Congress, Saudi Arabia has tough critics. Last November, a month after I officially became ambassador, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled, “Saudi Arabia: Friend or Foe.” Frankly, I thought that was a bit insulting to Saudis because we have never been a foe of the United States. On the contrary, in the last 60 years, we have always considered ourselves to be a good friend of the US, and felt that the US looked upon us as a good friend.
So this hearing about Saudi Arabia as a foe to the United States clearly indicated that there was a great deal of ignorance about the role of Saudi Arabia in the world today.
I made a point to meet with Senator [Arlen] Specter, who chaired the meeting, and we talked about his concerns. They were mainly about education and the direction of religion in Saudi Arabia. I reached out to the senator as a respectful friend. I made sure he knows that I am here and available to him – as are members of the embassy and my staff.
And in the future, he knows he doesn’t have to search for an interlocutor when he has issues or questions.
Developing relationships in this manner is very important. There are many misgivings and misperceptions about Saudi Arabia that can be fixed, if only they can be addressed in the right forum. There are others in the Congress, both houses, that I have met, and with whom I will meet, to inform them as well. This, of course, will be an ongoing process, but I know it will help.
What I consider my main focus right now, however, is the American people – which is the purpose of my visit here today, and the purpose of my recent trips around the country. Long before official relations existed between our governments, it was the Saudi and American people who connected, and formed friendships and partnerships.
In fact, our deepest relationships have grown from trade and commerce, and this has helped our nations when we’ve gone through rough spots. Our common business underscores that we have common interests and common goals.
Currently, Saudi Arabia is taking major steps to promote greater trade and business between our nations for this very reason.
As you know, the most significant step we have taken is finally joining the World Trade Organization last December. I could rattle off all the particulars of what we have done, but the simple idea is: When we became a WTO member, we committed immediately to a safe, secure, and transparent foreign trade environment.
As the largest economy in the Middle East region, and one of the fastest growing in the world, we have opened the doors to a great amount of opportunity.
What would be of particular interest to your industries is that we’ve also agreed to join several additional initiatives to lower tariffs and other trade barriers for telecommunication services, civilian aircraft and parts, chemicals, and information technology.
Saudi Arabia is growing, and we need the expertise to make our country and economy stronger. Some 20 years ago, we were still building the basic infrastructure to enable our country to operate – roads, schools, etc. Today, we are building communications and observation satellites and launching them into space. Six of them, in fact, will be sent up this year. Our aim is high, and we hope new investment will connect us on entirely new levels to the world around us.
Currently, there are investment opportunities worth over $600 billion available in Saudi Arabia in a number of fields, including expanding the natural gas industry, growing it, developing the mining and tourism sectors, and further privatizing state-owned corporations.
We are also making major investments in technology and economic infrastructure. Last December, we broke ground on the King Abdullah Economic City, a more than $26 million megaproject on the Red Sea. The city will feature one of the largest deep water ports in the world for freighters moving between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. It will also contain a “financial island” that will be home to the assets and funds of the world’s biggest financial institutions – including banks, investment houses and insurance companies.
Research and development and it will be important areas of growth in this city. You can think of it as a Dubai on the Red Sea – dedicated to finance and technology.
This is an exciting time in the kingdom, and the Saudi people are gearing up for these opportunities. You can see this in the performance of the Saudi stock market. Some say the economic upturn is a result of oil prices, but I view our current performance as an affirmation of our citizens’ confidence in the system. Over time it will run through its cycles – as it has in recent weeks – but we have laid prudent groundwork.
Our progress is not a result of throwing money at our problems. We didn’t just make up a spending list. Ours have been systematic programs created to facilitate considerable investment opportunities for both overseas investors and the Saudi private sector. Many people understand this, and the market reflects it.
I hope this has given you a good overview of where Saudi Arabia is today. Now I would be happy to take any questions you may have.