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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

Saudi Arabia is a land of opportunities for British businesses, UK diplomats say

The kingdom's Vision 2030 has laid out foundation for the economic and social change in the world's top oil exporting country

Cars drive past the King Abdullah Financial District, north of Riyadh. British diplomats have urged British business take advantage of opportunities arising from implementation of Vision 2030 in the kingdom. Reuters
Cars drive past the King Abdullah Financial District, north of Riyadh. British diplomats have urged British business take advantage of opportunities arising from implementation of Vision 2030 in the kingdom. Reuters

Current and former British ambassadors to Saudi Arabia have urged UK businesses to seize the chance to benefit from the kingdom's Vision 2030 ambitions.

Sir Alan Munro, who served as ambassador from 1989-1993, and the current ambassador Simon Collis, said rapid change, both on business and social fronts, was underway and cited Saudi’ Arabia's youthful population, its “inspiring” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the kingdom’s wealth as main reasons the vision ought to succeed.

“It’s a key market but also a kingdom on the verge of initiating a very bold, expensive but extensive programme of development, infrastructure growth and industrial and business encouragement. This can be seen in particular in the dynamic private sector,” said Mr Munro.

“It feels like one of those key moments that people will look back on in history as a moment of change. I’ve never worked anywhere where there’s been such a gap in the perception of a place and the reality,” said Mr Collis.

He said the change the country was heading for was on a completely different scale to elsewhere, given its population and country size and the high number of younger people.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter and Opec’s top crude producer, is trying to cut its dependence on hydrocarbons revenues, which still accounts for a major chunk of its income. Sale of state assets and development of local industrial and non-oil private sector are at the heart of the Vision 2030, the overarching blueprint of the kingdom’s economic overhaul ambitions. Increased participation of women into workforce and allowing them to drive been hailed as the major social changes in the Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Gulf’s biggest economy.

“Vision 2030 is so wide ranging. Senior Saudi Arabians sometimes describe it as a social revolution disguised as economic reform. Take a step back and it is clear the vision is being delivered. The greatest risk of all would have been if there had not been this kind of change,” said Mr Collis.

“I think it certainly is the case that those initial headlines about economic changes and people questioning whether the leadership understood the social consequences of these reforms. It’s become pretty clear that yes they understood the social consequences but also they intended to have them,” he added.

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Mr Collis and Mr Munro spoke at a conference in London attended by British businessmen interested in Saudi Arabian opportunities. Organised by Pathfinder Trade and Invest, the title could not have been more indicative of Vision 2030 and its intentions: "How change in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia unlocks new opportunities."

Professional services, consultancies, project management, financial services, technology, education and health care were areas where the UK’s knowledge could be particularly well utilised, Mr Collis noted.

“There is and indeed there ought to be a renewed level of interest and sense of engagement with Saudi Arabia at this very important time. It is being unleashed under the bold programme of the youthful and very inspiring crown prince,” said Mr Munro.

With cinemas opening and women being allowed to drive, Saudi Arabia has undertaken significant steps already, on the social front.

"Young Saudi’s all the time are looking for the job opportunities the transfer of technology. This includes women. It is extraordinary how many young women are starting up small businesses. There are opportunities for women which are exciting and interesting,” said Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean - a member of the House of Lords, and co-chair of the Saudi British Joint Business Council.

There would be challenges ahead, said Mr Collis.

“This transition will have ups and downs. One of the things that maybe could be improved on is consistency and predictability. This is most likely to improve investor conference.

“Nobody ever said it was perfectly straightforward and at very senior levels I have heard people say 'we think it’s better to have 100 goals and to hit 50 of them than to have 5 and hit them perfectly.'"

But he urged UK businesses to "look at what this country is seeking to do - and the fact [Saudi Arabia] can fund it."