On Wednesday, our last day in Riyadh, we were taken to the Saudi Chamber of Commerce, the agency officially responsible for overseeing and coordinating the Saudi economy. Our visit provided use with some deep insights into the functioning of and current challenges facing the Saudi economy, as well as a candid look into how the members of the chamber, all important and influential Saudis, feel about their culture, their society, and the current relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. I felt that our visit also revealed some important differences between the older generation of Saudis and the younger generations, something which was apparent during the meeting and which I will talk to in further depth later. The fact that we were taken to such an important agency demonstrates that the Saudis want to reinforce the importance of their economic success and growth on us; obviously, it is a source of pride for them, as well as something that they feel will continue to serve them well in the future.
We learned during our visit, which consisted of a roundtable discussion with the chairman and leading members of the Chamber of Commerce, that the chamber helps Saudi business achiever their objectives and grow stronger financially. It serves as the primary lobbyist for Saudi businesses and entrepreneurs to the government, relaying their concerns and desires directly to the leading policymakers in the Kingdom. The Chamber collaborates heavily with the Saudi government and Saudi businesses in order to develop policies which will resolve business concerns, obstacles, and problems. It accomplishes this by both developing and helping implement different economic policies and plans. Additionally, the Chamber of Commerce represents Saudi economic interests abroad, coordinating and conducting international trade and fostering greater international economic cooperation. In many ways, the Saudi Chamber of Commerce represents our own, and it is obviously a very important element in the growth and success of Saudi business. Institutions such as these are important in developed and developing countries as they serve as conduits between businesses and entrepreneurs and policymakers, and the Saudis clearly felt it was important that business concerns are responsively met by their government policies.
The chairman of the Council spoke at length about the success of the Saudi economy, as well as the current challenges it faces. He said that a major factor in the rapid growth of the Saudi economy has been that the Saudis invest much of their oil wealth in their own country as opposed to spending or investing it abroad. This has, according to him, helped spur economic development in the Kingdom, as it has kept money circulating within its borders. It has also provided Saudis with better standards of living, further contributing to economic activity and, in turn, growth. The Saudi economy, as it starts to diversify, increase its exports because of new and lucrative trade deals, and continues to develop more advanced, will only continue to grow, according to the members of the Chamber. Though they mentioned a number of challenges that lay ahead, they made it clear that there is much optimism about the continued success of their economy. For an observer of this optimism, it is clear that the Saudis feel that they are in a position of economic strength, and that they feel that their economic success will propel their country towards a greater and more successful future. The members of the council all seemed very proud of their work, and committed towards increasing the development of their economy. Though I am relatively ignorant of macroeconomics and the specifics of the Saudi economy, it seems as though this country is one which is economically growing, and that perhaps a greater economic relationship with them would be a good course of action for both of our countries.
Some of the challenges that they mentioned lay ahead include the need to increase entrepreneurialism in Saudi society. They talked at length about how most Saudis do not create their own businesses or are especially involved in capital pursuits, and that this has prevented a further growth in the economy. Furthermore, without this entrepreneurial attitude, the diversification of the Saudi economy and expansion of its various sectors will struggle to take place. This diversification of the oil is another challenge they mentioned. Right now the economy relies heavily upon the export of oil, and such reliance upon a single export leaves the economy vulnerable to volatility in its price. The members of the Chamber talked about how they have not yet succeeded to the degree they were hoping to with the diversification of their economy, but how this is one of the most important goals they currently have. Another problem mentioned was the high rates of unemployment among Saudis, and how they are trying to find a solution to this. One solution that has been implemented is forcing Saudi employers to pay higher salaries to Saudi citizens, in order to incentivize citizens to go to work. With such a large foreign labor force present in Saudi Arabia but high rates of unemployment among Saudi citizens, the members of the Chamber were concerned that something was going wrong in how they were developing their economy. Though these challenges will be tough to overcome, they are part of economic development. The Saudis seem committed to overcoming these problems, and it appeared as though they recognized that these problems exist in part because their economy is strengthening. It will be interesting to see the policy approaches that the Chamber develops in order to combat them, and whether these problems will actually create serious issues for the Saudis in the future.
Our discussions with the members of the Chamber of Commerce did not only touch upon economic issues, however. We talked in depth about the Saudi perceptions of their country and the United States. This provided an interesting look at the Saudi perspective of the world, and also revealed some interesting things about the Saudi leadership. The main person who talked was the chairman of the Chamber, a conservative-leaning member of the older generation. His name is Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Zamil, and he is one of the richest men in the Kingdom, having built a fortune off of owning air conditioning factories. His background and beliefs allowed us to see how the policymaking leadership in Saudi Arabia feels and approaches issues and, contrasted against what some of the younger and apparently more liberal members of the Chamber were saying, showed the generational gap which is currently so pronounced in the Kingdom.
He first talked about the issue of terrorism, saying that Saudi Arabia has never sponsored terrorists nor has it ever contributed to the growth of radicalism in the Islamic world. Indeed, he said that the United States has played a much larger role in the growth of terrorism by its actions in Afghanistan in 1989. Talking about corruption, a major issue facing Saudi Arabia today, he similarly said that his country has some corruption issues, but that corruption is also rampant in the United States and is an integral part of the American business culture. With regards to the role of women in Saudi society, he clearly reflected the conservative perspective, saying that women were “too shy” to take on major roles and jobs. However, he did note that Saudi society is slowly evolving, and that new roles for women are being found as that evolution is made. Still, he argued, any change will need to come slow, for rapid change will damage the order and stability of society. He pointed to the Shah’s Iran, its rapid Westernization, and the subsequent Islamic revolution as evidence of this belief. From these statements, he clearly held a belief that many of Saudi Arabia’s problems are the result of American meddling in the region. He further demonstrated the more conservative perceptions of women’s roles in society and the need for society to hold onto it tradition. As someone in a high position of leadership in the Kingdom, and as a member of the older generation currently in power, his statements reflected the current political outlook for the Saudi leadership. Though what much of what he was saying was perhaps not fully correct or was contradictory to our own beliefs, it was a candid and revealing look into the current character of the Kingdom, and these beliefs are important to understand in order to understand how the Kingdom operates and how it is going to evolve. The younger members of the Chamber took a rather different stance from him, stressing the importance of our program’s mission in fostering intercultural communication and understanding, and arguing that the Kingdom is indeed evolving and that change is coming. They were obviously in damage-control mode, trying to present an alternative perspective from what the chairman had been saying. This contrast in views revealed the large generational gap between young and old Saudis, and further revealed the reality that Saudi Arabia is a Kingdom whose population is in transition. As the younger generations, which make up much of the Saudi population, start coming into positions of higher leadership and power, perhaps we will start seeing their more liberal and progressive views turning into more liberal and progressive policies.