Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Saudi-Singapore Relations: More Needs to Be Done in Cultural Sphere


Tang Li, li@tang-asia.com

A good start, but more must be done Singaporeans have been benefiting from a growing and improving business relationship with Saudi Arabia. Ever since Singapore’s Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong visited Saudi Arabia in February 2005, the city state’s government and business community have been on an “all-out” push to bring Saudi-Singapore ties to a level where Singapore’s business community can operate and compete with others in the Kingdome’s growing market.

Recent months have seen Singapore’s leaders visit the Middle East to build ties with the region. First there was President SR Nathan’s trip to Egypt and Jordan. At the same time, Singapore’s minister mentor visited Kuwait and the UAE and now, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visits Saudi Arabia and the GCC region to sign a flurry of treaties.

The desire to improve ties has been mutual. Saudi Arabia views Singapore as an important link in its efforts to build its relationship with Asia. This year, Saudi-Singapore relations were marked by Crown Prince Sultan’s visit to Singapore, a first by a senior member of the Saudi royal family. SAGIA also set up its first overseas office in Singapore and Saudi-Singapore business and political ties seem to be on the fast track to a better place.

With everything looking so rosy on both sides, is there anything else that can be done to improve things? There are a couple of issues that the Kingdome and Singapore need to deal with in order to take relations to a higher level than they already are.

One issue that both nations need to resolve is the area of visas. Saudi citizens are required to apply for visas to enter Singapore. Although Singapore’s small Saudi community has been relatively quiet on the issue, Saudi business people who operate from Singapore like Mansour Al Khazal, managing director of KMC International Pte Ltd have expressed disappointment at the inconvenience caused by the visa restrictions. The visa issue has been something that Saudi Ambassador Dr. Mohammed Amin Kurdi has been working to persuade the Singapore government to reverse its position on.

Another area in which Saudi-Singapore relations need to develop in is in the cultural ties or people-to-people ties. The Saudi community in Singapore has been busy working to introduce Singaporeans to Saudi culture. Ambassador Dr. Kurdi has led the efforts to build better cultural ties by inviting members of various NGOs, like charity Pertapis to events like Saudi Arabia’s National Day Celebrations and Saudi Aramco, led by former Regional Vice President Ali Bakhsh has organized a yearly cultural events to bring Saudi culture closer to Singaporeans.

Progress has been slow but steady. For many Singaporeans, the Middle East remains something of a mystery. Dubai remains the best-known destination in the region and other parts of the Middle East need to work harder to develop brand recognition amongst the Singaporean public.

However, Singaporeans are displaying interest in wanting to know more about Saudi Arabia. Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew recently urged his countrymen to learn Arabic to take advantage of the opportunities in the Arabian Gulf. In September, Dr. Balaji Sadisivan, Singapore’s senior minister of state for the Ministry of Communication, Youth and Sport, who was guest of honor at Saudi Aramco function remarked: “Singapore is keen to do business with Saudi Arabia so Singaporeans need to get to know Saudi Arabia’s rich culture. I used to think Saudi costumes were white but I’ve been introduced to Saudi costumes that are rich in color. When you discover the culture, you discover things you never realized about the people and you make new friends.”

Dr. Balaji’s comments have been echoed by ordinary Singaporeans who visited Saudi Aramco’s cultural event. Many expressed interest in Saudi dates and one Singaporean ended up going home wearing a thobe.

Singapore, a nation of migrants has been at a crossroad for civilizations to meet. Saudis in Singapore have found Singapore to be welcoming. Singaporeans have shown a hunger to learn more about Saudi Arabia. So, while political ties between the two nations seem rosy and business ties are improving, it is perhaps time for Saudi Arabia and Singapore to double up in their efforts to introduce their culture to each other’s people.

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