Building Bridges in Business: A Conversation with Omar Bahlaiwa

Published: February 10, 2012

Editor’s Note:

The 2nd US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum in Atlanta was an unparalleled gathering of ministers and senior government officials and corporate and civic leaders from Saudi Arabia and the United States designed to increase understanding and business interactions between the two nations. The one thousand plus attendees, including over two hundred from Saudi Arabia, participated in the many well-organized panels and breakout sessions covering a broad range of high interest topics. The Forum was sponsored by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Commerce and Industry and organized by the: Committee for International Trade (CIT); the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council; and the Saudi-US Trade Group (SUSTG).

In October we spoke with Eng. Omar Bahlaiwa, Secretary General of the CIT, about the efforts to expand Saudi trade relationships with American businesses, especially the prospects for the US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum. He referred to both the first such forum, held in Chicago in 2010, and the Atlanta event, noting the forum program provided, “an incredible opportunity for Americans and Saudis to come together to take advantage of the current massive commercial expansion in the Kingdom.” Bahlaiwa previewed the Atlanta Forum, noting, “ It will bring together very high-level officials, trade and investment specialists, and hundreds of business people from both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia who are ready to do business together.”

Eng. Bahlaiwa takes the mission of CIT to many countries where Saudi Arabia has business interests but he is especially keen on the commercial relationship between the Kingdom and the United States:

“The business relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States has been strong for 80 years, and as I like to say the partnership is like a Catholic marriage – it will last forever. However, we need events like the Business Opportunities Forum in Atlanta to keep those relationships strong, as part of the overall relationship between our countries. The business piece remains very comfortable for both sides. Saudis are very comfortable in dealing with the Americans when it comes to business and likewise Americans are very comfortable in dealing with Saudis when it comes to business. The United States is Saudi Arabia’s largest single trading partner as a result of the bridges that have been built by events like the December forum in Atlanta.”

Today we are pleased to provide for your consideration our exclusive interview with Eng. Omar Bahlaiwa to share his perspective on what was accomplished at the US-Saudi Business Forum in Atlanta. We also suggest you visit our Special Section to see an index of the many articles, interviews, transcripts, videos, slide presentations and more, from the Forum. [Links below.]

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“The US-Saudi Business Opportunity Forum is a great opportunity to get connected to great opportunities. Saudi Arabia has over $1 trillion of projects open for investment and partnerships in the coming years. The Forum is an excellent way to learn about doing business in the Kingdom, to learn about the sectors and programs and to get connected to partners in Saudi Arabia — getting to know them and establishing connections always pays off. So hopefully next time those who missed this one will come. But there’s no need to wait. There are many resources available to get connected with these opportunities right now. They can check out the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority web site or contact the Saudi-US Trade Group and the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council for assistance in getting started. The best advice is to jump in, come visit on the ground and start doing business in Saudi Arabia.”

– CIT Chairman Dr. Abdulaziz H. Al Fahad [Link]

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“The opportunities are really great, and the market is very, very hospitable to American businesses. Saudis have always held high the relationship with their U.S. partners. American businessmen will tell you they have been very welcomed in the Kingdom. They’ve been offered all the assistance possible through the government and the private sector. If anybody has any difficulty, they can always get help by calling the Committee for International Trade or the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce, and we will give them all the assistance that they need.”

– Eng. Khaled Al-Seif [Link]

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EXCLUSIVE

Building Bridges in Business: A Conversation with Omar Bahlaiwa

[SUSRIS] Thank you for sharing your perspectives with us and congratulations on the very successful Business Opportunities Forum in Atlanta, co-sponsored by your group, the Committee for International Trade. What were your objectives when the event was being organized?

Omar Bahlaiwa
Secretary General Omar Bahlaiwa, Committee for International Trade (CIT)

[Mr. Omar Bahlaiwa] Thank you. The objective has been much bigger than just a forum, bigger than a single event. As you know the Atlanta Forum is the second of its kind and the latest in many events that have sought to share the economic boom, the commercial expansion opportunities of over $1 trillion, underway in Saudi Arabia with our American business friends. The Committee for International Trade and our partners in these efforts, in association with the Ministry of Commerce, organized the Atlanta forum based on the success in Chicago a year earlier, that brought together over 1200 Americans and Saudis. Both events included very senior officials on both sides who provided details and policy insights on a broad spectrum of issues – commerce, education, healthcare, energy, infrastructure, and much more.

However, these events are more than that. We are trying to build bridges between Saudi Arabia and the United States, and these bridges come in many ways. The first is the economic, the second is political, and the third is cultural. So we approached the forum in terms of all of them, three in one as they say. We brought our economy to the United States, opportunities to partner with Saudi business people in the midst of an incredible economic expansion. As I mentioned we brought high level officials to speak and talk to their counterparts in the private sector. And at the same forum we brought some culture. We brought Saudi music, dancers, artists, our youth and the “Messengers of Peace” program. We tried to show all segments of Saudi Arabia, not just the business sector. It was our way of making it “Saudi week” in Atlanta, and I believe we really succeeded in portraying a good image of Saudi Arabia to the American society.

[SUSRIS] Were you satisfied that you achieved all of your goals?

[Bahlaiwa] I think we did achieve what we set before us as we developed the forum program, but the results do not appear on the spot so you have to be patient. You must first identify opportunities and directions for these opportunities. American companies can now look closer, communicate with those businesses and begin to establish relationships. The next step would be a visit to Saudi Arabia to investigate the business opportunities available. The Chicago Forum last year was a good example of this. We had over 100 American companies that started doing business with Saudi companies after the forum. We are hoping and expecting to have at least the same results after the Atlanta Forum.

[SUSRIS] Was there any anecdotal feedback from participants about the Atlanta forum and what it provided for them?

[Bahlaiwa] Yes. We have received many comments from participants who have been enlightened to the opportunities in Saudi Arabia and are eager to take those extra steps to reach out to Saudi Arabia and start doing business. There were many complimentary comments – from both American and Saudi participants – about the quality of the speakers, the arrangement of the program and the steps that were taken to enhance networking and to enable the first steps in developing business deals. We also heard very favorable comments from the community outreach partners in Atlanta about the Saudi delegation’s interactions.

[SUSRIS] Can you describe the scope of the commercial opportunities in Saudi Arabia that were on the table at the forum?

[Bahlaiwa] We presented a wide diversity of business opportunities at the forum. The program started with education; training, human resources, educational programs, and so forth. Another area highlighted was medical and healthcare. It is a huge sector in Saudi Arabia with tremendous opportunities for investment and partnerships encompassing equipment, technology, health education, health centers, as well as small and medium level health providers. There are a great many opportunities in Saudi Arabia in the health sector and it would be beneficial to both countries for the United States to transfer their business know how to Saudi Arabia.

We previewed a wide range of business opportunities in other sectors as well: energy, water, petrochemical, agriculture, logistics, transportation, cargo and many more.

We highlighted the oil and energy sector with the Aramco workshop, designed by Aramco to educate companies on the opportunities available as an Aramco vendor. There are opportunities available in the downstream industry of chemicals and petrochemicals with companies like SABIC, Saudi Industrialization Company and Dow Chemical. All of these opportunities are available to American companies, and I should add, there is a special emphasis on small to medium enterprises.

The next step in developing a business relationship is to communicate with organizations like the U.S.-Saudi Business Council or the commercial attaché at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, and with the Committee for International Trade or the Council of Saudi Chambers in Saudi Arabia.

[SUSRIS] Many people probably have the impression that getting involved in business in Saudi Arabia is something for large corporations, but you mentioned opportunities for the small and medium enterprises.

[Bahlaiwa] Yes, there is a wide open field for SMEs to get involved in the economic boom in Saudi Arabia. In both the Chicago and Atlanta forums we announced that these opportunities do not exclude small and medium enterprises. We want to invite participation by small and medium enterprises into Saudi business. We want SME’s but they must work hard and become engaged with larger companies to find these opportunities.

I do not see any obstacles to doing business in Saudi Arabia, but they must reach out through either the Business Council or the commercial attaché to contact Saudi companies in their field. They can learn who is the right company to engage and the right channels to go through. Opportunities will find them because Saudi companies need know how, technology, machinery, etc. to meet their needs. If a company is willing to work at creating business opportunities there are a wealth of them available. I’d also like to mention, in this regard, that through the economic reforms that have been going on in the Kingdom for many years now we have seen a steady and dramatic climb up the ladder of what’s called the “Ease of Doing Business Index.” It’s a World Bank ranking and Saudi Arabia is now number 12 out of 183 countries.

[SUSRIS] Is SAGIA among the places that potential business should research in getting started?

[Bahlaiwa] SAGIA would be for those who want to invest in Saudi Arabia. SAGIA is the General Investment Authority, so if you want to invest in Saudi Arabia, or if you want to have a license from Saudi Arabia, then you should go directly to SAGIA. SAGIA was participating in the forum and, yes, for those investors interested in Saudi Arabia as investment potential the SAGIA website would be the place to start.

[SUSRIS] You mentioned health and education briefly in talking about the scope of opportunities, and the high-level representation in the Saudi delegation included among several Ministers the Ministers of Health and Education. What were their roles in the business opportunities forum?

[Bahlaiwa] The Minister of Education participated on the macro level to enlighten the audience, especially Americans, that education reform is moving in the right direction. On a micro level, we were talking about the opportunities in the education field for entrepreneurs. The Minister of Health gave the macro picture of the health industry in Saudi Arabia. In the afternoon we had the panel on health covering three major sectors. The first one, the public sector in the health industry. The second was the private sector in the health industry. And the third one was on health insurance in Saudi Arabia and its potential. We brought successful stories of American companies doing business in Saudi Arabia to introduce the audience to those who are already successful doing business in the Saudi health industry.

[SUSRIS] In a time of uncertainty in the global economic picture and tension in the Arab world, in the Middle East region, what would you tell an American businessperson about the Kingdom to get them to think about doing business in Saudi Arabia?

[Bahlaiwa] Saudi Arabia is like any other country – you need to get to know it first before you jump into it. You must visit the country, get to know the people, the culture, as well as how to deal with both the people and the government. Saudi Arabia is really not much different than any other country. The people want what people want anywhere in the world.

Americans came to Saudi Arabia in the thirties, forties and fifties to help develop the country. At that time they developed strong relationships and friendships, which have been sustained and continue across generations. New relationships can be forged on mutual interests of business and economy, and by understanding and embracing the culture, businesses can create long lasting enterprises. Saudi Arabia is a stable country with a bright future, and many opportunities are available.

One person told me about some companies that were looking for new business but knew nothing about Saudi Arabia. I spent an hour educating them on Saudi Arabia and they were pleased with that. I think as Saudis we need to communicate more about our country, the opportunities there and how to go about doing business with Saudi Arabia.

[SUSRIS] In terms of the global economic picture, can you give people just a sense of the scale, the magnitude of the business opportunities that are being talked about?

[Bahlaiwa] We are talking about over $1 trillion worth of business opportunities. Saudi Arabia is the largest economy in the Middle East, 25 percent of the region’s GDP, and our economic growth this year was 5.95%, which is very high in today’s world.

King Abdullah and the government of Saudi Arabia are working hard at advancing and supporting the economy. Through his wise leadership and the blessings of resources in the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia has a very promising future with continued growth.

Saudi Arabia alongside the United States is a member of the Group of Twenty – the principal international organization shaping the global economic landscape. The country is a member of the World Trade Organization and all of the other major international economic forums.

The Committee for International Trade, along with our American partners, is working through events like the Atlanta forum to support the partnership building with American businesses to continue to develop both countries in a global economy.

[SUSRIS] How were local governments and organizations involved in the Forum?

[Bahlaiwa] We received a lot of support and encouragement from the Governor of Georgia, the Mayor of Atlanta, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Department of Economic Development as well as the Department of Commerce. In addition many other parties were very enthusiastic and helpful, they were members of the Host Committee which did a great job and to which we owe a debt of gratitude. We enjoyed the terrific southern hospitality, the Georgia hospitality. People were very friendly and welcoming, smiling all the time. They really made us feel at home.

[SUSRIS] What is next for the Committee for International Trade and your partners?

[Bahlaiwa] We continue to work to share the business opportunities with our American partners – the building bridges work I talked about. As far as the next iteration of the forum, we are exploring a third forum in either 2012 or 2013. I encourage all businesses to attend and get to know our country and the availability of long-term opportunities.

[SUSRIS] Thank you very much.

[Bahlaiwa] Thank you for spreading the news about the US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum.

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Eng. Omar Ahmed Bahlaiwa
Secretary General, Committee for International Trade (CIT)

Omar Bahlaiwa
Secretary General Omar Bahlaiwa, Committee for International Trade (CIT)

Omar Bahlaiwa is the Secretary General of Committee of International Trade (CIT) for Saudi Arabia.  As such his current role is to enhance and promote the country’s image internationally, leading prominent business delegations to Europe, North America and other key OECD nations to expand commercial opportunities in Saudi Arabia globally. He works closely with his contacts in both local and international business communities to promote exports and attract foreign direct investment to Saudi Arabia. He has been selected as one of the “Leaders in Saudi Arabia” for 2007 and 2011.

Mr. Bahlaiwa is an engineer by education and training and he has experience managing Saudi companies including Senior Technical Analyst at the Saudi Industrial Development Fund (SIDF), Plant Manager for Al-Moajil Sack Factory, VP Sales & Marketing for Saudi Industrial Export Company, General Manager for MATTEX and Assistant Secretary General for Foreign Affairs for the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

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The Committee for International Trade (CIT)

Founded in 1983, The Committee for International Trade (CIT) within the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce is comprised of leading Saudi businessmen and businesswomen working to expand and improve Saudi Arabia’s external trade relationships.

A private-sector initiative, CIT recognizes that Saudi Arabia’s global economic, financial and commercial partnerships are also influenced by social and political considerations; that the ample and accurate flow of information combined with ongoing and candid dialogue are intrinsic to building durable trade and investment ties with the United States as well as other nations.

In support of strong and sustained trade relations, CIT seeks to:

  • Engage with key institutions of civil society;
  • Create an environment for productive and positive dialogue on political, economic and cultural matters critical to Saudi Arabia;
  • Promote Saudi Arabia’s economic growth and diversification both domestically and abroad;
  • Affirm Saudi Arabia’s commitment to being a responsible and constructive member of the global community.

In keeping with its mission, CIT often partners with other public and private institutions in the United States and elsewhere.

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