This week will see Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman visiting London. You may have noticed the many advertising hoardings around the capital highlighting this rare event and also that we at AEI Saudi have chosen to promote them. And you will see various news reports and newspaper articles this week all talking about Saudi going through unparalleled change or the huge trade statistics between Saudi and the UK. Indeed the huge statistics between Saudi and the rest of the world as Saudi continues to grow into one of the most important global economies. But I wanted to provide a more human side to this story…
Almost a decade ago I set foot in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the first time. I had no idea back then how great an impact this reserved yet proud, ancient Arabic culture was going to have on me. From the first Saudi I met who I still play football with now, through to showing my young son where the Kingdom is on a world map this morning, Saudi has been with me as I have journeyed from young entrepreneur to husband, father and finally the man I am today.
Ten years is a long time for a person and one would expect a great deal of personal change but, for a country, ten years might only bring a few new buildings to a neighbourhood, maybe a new one-way system in the town centre or a few shop names changed on the high street; small, slow change, barely noticeable unless you really stop to think about it.
Not so in Saudi; here, every aspect is near unrecognisable from the country I entered in 2008.
Gone the four-hour queue and the often oppressive atmosphere at Riyadh airport where gun toting, military personnel would yell you through passport control. Nowadays you can be off the plane and through immigration in mere minutes. Indeed, barely enough time for the now plain-clothed officials to have said ‘hello’ with a friendly smile. Yet they always do.
No longer are women conspicuously absent from public areas and just last week it was announced that they could now join the Saudi military and in a matter of months they will also be driving their cars beside mine as I make my way from the airport past the ever-increasing number of skyscrapers downtown.
It is easy to turn your nose up at these trivial examples and while women driving hardly seems a laudable achievement in this day and age, it is when you understand where Saudi was just a few years ago. This is when you realise the amazing pace of change that Saudi has been and is currently experiencing.
It is for this reason we wholeheartedly support the visit of His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the UK this week. Because if there is one individual who has been the driving force behind these changes it is ‘MbS’, as he is often known. He has faced resistance of course, both internally and from powers outside the Kingdom, yet he has not faltered.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the business world; working at AEI, we have been privileged to have helped nearly 700 companies, the majority British, to their various Saudi successes over the years. Our clients have come from all sectors from cheddar cheese producers to medical device manufacturers, PR companies to vocational training providers.
Saudi was a difficult and austere place to do business; so I knew AEI had made a difference when upon leaving the Kingdom for a short break, a client first told me that “he couldn’t wait to be back”. Today, our clients rely on our market entry advice, our efficient delivery of local support services and a whole host of other value add activities. We have genuinely been a part of the massive change the Kingdom is going through.
Not that long ago Bishi, my Saudi footballing friend, would struggle to find people for us to play a match with. Now we find ourselves in a league organised by our very own Manpower Service contractors and playing alongside friends, colleagues and clients.
And our clients have been successful; together with them, we have helped build schools, maintain railways, we have helped to reduce unemployment and we have supported our respective Kingdoms working together at the highest levels on government to government programmes. Last year one of our clients helped deliver over $1bn of investment into the sports sector so that all Saudi youngsters, boys and girls, will experience the joy of team sports like I once did.
We are extremely proud of what we have achieved and excited about what is to come. However, AEI and our clients are not unique Saudi success stories; Saudi is a wealthy country and under its new, energetic and dynamic leadership it is forging ahead on a peaceful and progressive reform agenda. This entails spending vast sums of money across virtually every sector. Saudis appreciate the British. Like them, we are understated and we have the same affections for politeness and a ‘friendship first, selling second’ approach.
So, whether your ambition is purely financial or you also believe that trade is one of the paths to a closer and more harmonious world, the old Arabic saying has never been more true: ‘If the wind blows, ride it’.
And in Saudi Arabia the winds of change are at gale force.
Founder Director, AEI Saudi