I met with Mr Meshari S. Al Khaled, Director-General of SAGIA Singapore yesterday. I had hopped to explore the possibilities of working with Mr Meshari in his mission to promote foreign investment in Saudi Arabia and I was optimistic about my chances of being able to get a foothold in developing a good working relationship with someone I had only met very briefly at embassy functions.
As things would have it, I was exceptionally lucky in the fact that I didn't just have a face-to-face meeting with a man who could be a business partner but I meet what is hopefully the new face of Saudi Arabia and its intentions to engage the world.
The Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) was created in 2000 with the sole purpose of encouraging foreign investment in Saudi Arabia. It's hard for us who have not grown up in the Middle East to accept the idea that Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer would ever need foreign investment. However, when you speak to the people at SAGIA, you realise that the Saudi's are very aware that their prosperity will not be secured on oil alone and they also understand the fact that there is a real need to engage the world.
By their own admission, Saudi's admit that Saudi Arabia is a "Closed" society. Ali Baksh, Saudi Petroleum's former Regional VP, admited, "We are a shy people." However, that's changing quite rapidly. If you meet some of the key members of the Saudi Community in Singapore, you'll realise that there are quite a few Saudi's who are cosmopolitan and very keen to engage the world. Dr Kurdi, the Ambassador is a Berkley Graduate. Mr Meshari studied in the Netherlands and worked in ABN Amro in the Netherlands for a good part of a decade.
Mr Meshari is young. I think he's somewhere in his mid-thirties. He's very dynamic, very down to earth. Came into the embassy and invited us to his office, which is conveniently located in a corner in the embassy. Throughout the hour that he accorded me, he was open with information, even volunteering information such as his education and his experiences of transfering from the commercial world to the government. The man was exceptionally curteous and left me feeling with a sense of excitement about what can and cannot be done.
The man seems to represent his organisations culture very well. His big boss, the Governor (equivalent to a Minister), HE Amr Al Dabbagh is a former businessman (Incidentally I was supposed to interview him when I was in Saudi last year but Minister Mentor's visit took priority) and it seems that many of the main people at SAGIA are business people on a second career - "National Service"
What's particularly unusual about SAGIA is the fact that two of its overseas offices in Europe are run by Muslim women. This is from a country that's supposedly a hell hole for women's rights.
It may not be a grand revolution but it does say alot about Saudi Arabia that it's suddenly allowing women to have an open position of responsbility in key government bodies, in key positions. It may not be a colourful example of women's lib - but its progress and something that should be looked forward.