Business Forum Wrap-up: A Conversation with Richard Wilson

Published: September 24, 2013

Editor’s Note:

The US-Saudi-Business Opportunities Forum in Los Angeles last week was the 3rd such event bringing together officials and business people to highlight the U.S.-Saudi commercial and trade relationship and how U.S. companies can participate in Saudi Arabia’s expansion. It also provides a unique platform for American and Saudi executives to establish new and lasting business ties. The message of the Forum was delivered in keynote remarks from Saudi Arabian Minister of Commerce and Industry Dr. Tawfiq al-Rabiah:

“The Saudi-U.S. relationship is in its eighth decade. It has weathered many storms. It has been tried, it has been tested, and it has always come out stronger after each experience.. ..Bilateral investments are at unprecedented levels. This wouldn’t be the case if not for the strength of the relationship. Commercial and trade ties between the two countries continue to grow from a position of strength.. ..Saudi Arabia is undergoing an extraordinary economic boom. Massive public investment, rapid private sector growth, and new sector initiatives are driving an expansion projected to offer more than $1 trillion in trade and investment opportunities over the next decade. From the port expansion projects to the enormous potential for renewable energy to the recently embarked upon metals projects, the Kingdom is open for business, trade, and opportunities.”People US Saudi Business Opportunities Forum USSBOF Plenary

The 3rd US-Saudi-Business Opportunities Forum was held under the patronage of Dr. Rabiah and organized by the Committee for International Trade (CIT), the U.S.-Saudi Business Council and the Saudi-US Trade Group (SUSTG). Today we are pleased to share with you the perspective of Mr. Richard Wilson, President of SUSTG who reflected on the Forum and what was achieved on the afternoon of its conclusion. He was previously Senior Advisor with the Committee for International Trade (CIT) within the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry and also the Executive Director of the Middle East Policy Council in Washington, D.C.  Mr. Wilson has more than 25 years experience in the Middle East with particular emphasis on the Arabian Gulf. SUSRIS talked with him at the J.W. Marriott Hotel LA Live on Wednesday, September 18, 2013.

Look to SUSRIS in coming days and weeks for transcripts, articles, interviews and other resources, including videos, slides and photographs from the US-Saudi Business Opportunity Forum in Los Angeles. Please ask your friends and colleagues to subscribe to SUSRIS so they will also benefit from the extensive compilation of business resources available here.

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Business Forum Wrap-up: A Conversation with Richard Wilson

[SUSRIS] Congratulations to your organization, the Saudi-US Trade Group, the Committee for International Trade and the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council on concluding the 3rd U.S.-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum. After all the months of hard work planning how did it go?

People Richard Wilson SUSTG President
Richard Wilson, President Saudi-US Trade Group

[Richard Wilson] Thank you. We were very pleased. Our experience with our Forums in Chicago and Atlanta led us to anticipate certain numbers of attendees and certain types of companies. Los Angeles surpassed expectations. We had over 1,100 registered participants including over two hundred fifty in the Saudi delegation.

We were delighted both U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and Undersecretary Francisco Sanchez joined us. It’s unusual for two senior officials from the same department to appear at the same event but this demonstrates how much they value the relationship with Saudi Arabia. I think Secretary Pritzker was excited to be here. She’s been to Saudi Arabia and sees it as a market that deserves attention. Undersecretary Sanchez is going to be in Saudi Arabia with a delegation of American companies in ten days. So there’s positive momentum underway at the moment.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, by the way, has been a terrific partner for these Forums and never more so than for this one in Los Angeles.

[SUSRIS] The Saudi side was represented by Minister of Commerce Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, under whose patronage the Forum was organized. Can you talk about his participation?

[Wilson] The Minister expressed great satisfaction with the Forum and the promotion of the business opportunities and commercial relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States. He is particularly interested in exports, the development of industry and technology. We tried to be responsive to that as organizers.

People US Saudi Business Opportunities Forum USSBOF Plenary Rabiah Pritzker Smith Sanchez

He seemed very pleased with the results. He was especially interested in the B2B Accelerator software we developed specifically for this Forum. He had a great visit with a group of Saudi Student Ambassadors who were selected to help implement this event. In fact, there was a terrific encounter with these students that resulted in his taking away a number of suggestions. I believe he was very pleased with the Forum’s attendance, the quality of speakers and the tremendous activity we were seeing in the networking and meeting spaces. The Minister also put some effort into arranging bilateral meetings with Secretary Pritzker, Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti and others.

[SUSRIS] The geographical diversity of the three Forums suggests regional considerations in planning. What was the significance of having Los Angeles, and California, and the American West as backdrop for this event?

[Wilson] California is an intriguing proposition for business in Saudi Arabia. California has tremendous state and municipal expertise in sectors that are important to Saudi Arabia, such as transportation, waste, utilities, ports and so forth. They also have been leaders in sectors such as technology, green-tech, agriculture, aerospace, and water management. These are strategic industries where expertise and technical skill translate. We believed there would be a great many areas of mutual interest and that’s what we found.

People US Saudi Business Opportunities Forum USSBOF Education Plenary

[SUSRIS] Apart from the numbers in the door and the very high level officials who attended what pleased you about the Forum?

[Wilson] One of the priorities of these forums is to promote and stimulate business partnerships. We work to expand existing ones but also to start new relationships. A simple litmus test for us is the level of activity going on in the lobbies. As with Chicago and Atlanta, the lobbies were packed throughout the Forum with people talking, building relationships, making contacts, and exploring opportunities. To us that’s a very important part of these Business Opportunities Forums.

We were especially pleased with an innovation that we didn’t have in Chicago or Atlanta, the “B2B Accelerator” we developed specifically for the Forum. The Saudi-U.S. Trade Group worked with the Saudi Arabian Commercial Office and the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and our other partners to put together a program that facilitated business matchmaking. It was a tremendous success. The B2B Accelerator was subscribed to the hilt; close to four hundred meetings were arranged. A ballroom was set aside solely for B2B networking. It was busy throughout the Forum. That was a component of the event we really wanted to get right in L.A. and it looks like we did.

[SUSRIS] Are you measuring the results?

[Wilson] Yes. We wanted to have reliable data coming from this Forum. We didn’t have that for the Chicago and Atlanta events. This time we’ll have metrics that say who met with whom, how many people met, and so forth. Then there will be follow up, which we think is important. We will work with companies to see if they need assistance and to have reporting and tracking on deals that were struck.

[SUSRIS] Let’s talk about the Forum objective of sustaining the bridges built through the decades of commercial relationships between Americans and Saudis. Tell us about the Saudi student ambassadors who worked at the Forum.

[Wilson] What a great group of young men and women. The Saudi-U.S. Trade Group feels strongly that the King Abdullah Scholarship Program is a very special initiative. Not only for the basic fact that eighty thousand plus students and their families, in some cases, are coming to the United States for higher education. There’s much more that goes with it – the opportunity is rich beyond the classwork and impacts how they live, socialize and engage with Americans and with the United States.

People Saudi Commerce Minister Rabiah Saudi Student Ambassadors USSBOF
Saudi Student Ambassadors meeting Commerce Secretary Dr. Tawfiq al-Rabiah at the US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum.

We think this is an extraordinary opportunity for the United States in its commercial stance with Saudi Arabia. These are motivated young Saudis who will make friends and future business associates here in the U.S. Their relationships here will result in exposure to new ideas, entrepreneurial ventures, manufacturing processes, start-up ideas, fashion trends, marketing insights, you name it. It is fertile ground and the list is endless. The point being that these relationships should, over time, translate into deeper and more diversified commercial ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Set aside the strategic objectives of educating a large cohort from the youth bulge in the Kingdom, set aside the educational advantages, social implications and other important goals of the program. We know what happens when you have an affinity for a place and when you have friends and trusted colleagues in that place. That results in business.

The Saudi-U.S. Trade Group has had student volunteers at the Forums in Chicago and Atlanta but we really wanted to step that up here in Los Angeles and have it become more of an integral part of the Forum operations. We also wanted it to be a more selective process. We invited Saudi students currently in the United States to apply and we selected eighteen. They were all exceptional.

People US Saudi Business Opportunities Forum USSBOF Panel

We put them to work on all aspects of the Forum. They worked on the digital platforms, social media, Arab media, event logistics, handling green room arrangements, registration, the B2B Accelerator, photography – you name it.

They performed extraordinarily well and I think they were delighted to play important roles in the Forum despite the hard work. They represented their country beautifully and they were exactly what we hoped they would be. Actually, they were even better than we hoped and that really reflects well on them.

So, we will work to maintain the relationship that SUSTG has developed with a scores of Saudi students. The plan is to take this process into other projects, other areas we can cooperate. As I said we think this is not only an investment by Saudi Arabia in its own human resources and its own people, but it’s a tremendous opportunity for us to build relationships that will have long-term pay off for both Americans and Saudis.

People US Saudi Business Opportunities Forum USSBOF Plenary

[SUSRIS] Your organization, the Saudi-US Trade Group, alongside the Committee for International Trade and the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council has organized three preeminent events highlighting the commercial relationships and opportunities between the two countries. What’s next?

[Wilson] The Ministry of Commerce and the organizers are pleased to have established a brand. The U.S.-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum team has now executed three very successful high-level forums, all of them with over eleven hundred people in attendance, all of them featuring very high levels of government officials from both sides, and all of them providing an extraordinary array of sector participation, content and expertise.

This is easily the highest profile and the most highly attended U.S.-Saudi business event in the U.S. every year it’s been held. This is an anchor that plays a key role in promoting U.S.-Saudi business and commercial opportunities.

The thing that I hear most after each of these events is, “When is the next one?”

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About Richard Wilson

People Richard Wilson SUSTG PresidentRichard Wilson is President of the Saudi-US Trade Group. Mr. Wilson was previously Senior Advisor with Committee for International Trade (CIT) within the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry and also Executive Director of the Middle East Policy Council. Mr. Wilson has more than 25 years experience in the Middle East with particular emphasis on the Arabian Gulf. Having lived, studied and traveled extensively in the region he has developed a deep understanding of the business, social and political environment along with high-level contacts in the public and private sector. Mr. Wilson has a B.A. in Political Science from Davidson College and earned his M.A. in International Relations from the School of Advanced International Studies at The Johns Hopkins University where he focused on economics and Middle East studies. He has also studied at the University of Yarmouk in Jordan and King Saud University in Riyadh.

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About the Saudi-US Trade Group

The Saudi-US Trade Group (SUSTG) works to inform and elevate discussion and analysis of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship. SUSTG has a special interest in issues related to economy, trade, commerce, energy and finance and also provides coverage of an extraordinary range of other matters critical to the U.S.-Saudi relationship including political, social and other topics as well as key issues related to intelligence, security and defense.

The SUSTG website (www.sustg.org) is the most comprehensive site available for U.S.-Saudi coverage and provides an up-to-the-minute survey of current reporting and analysis via its ‘Saudi News,’ ‘Regional and Related,’ ‘Editor’s Choice,’ ‘Life in Saudi’ and ‘Features’ categories.  SUSTG also provides original commentary via its ‘SUSTG Blog’ service and through the Saudi-US Relations Information Service (SUSRIS).

People US Saudi Business Opportunities Forum USSBOF CIT SUSTG SUSRIS
Committee for International Trade Secretary General Omar Bahlaiwa and Chairman Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Fahad, Saudi-US Trade Group President Richard Wilson and Director of Research Lucien Zeigler; and SUSRIS Editor-in-Chief Patrick Ryan at the US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum.

SUSRIS is a ‘sister site’ sponsored by SUSTG which offers objective, comprehensive news and information on the history, breadth and depth of the US-Saudi Arabia relationship. In addition to being a chronicle of the US-Saudi Arabia relationship and an unparalleled resource for information related to the relationship, SUSRIS provides extensive original material with timely and informative interviews, analysis and blog posts; all of which are part of the SUSTG library as well.

In addition to the SUSTG website and daily News Review e-mail newsletter, SUSTG partners with respected US and Saudi institutions to implement delegations, forums, meetings and other special projects.  SUSTG is an organizing sponsor along with the Saudi Committee for International Trade (CIT) and the U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council of the US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum initiativeThis initiative is part of SUSTG’s ongoing efforts to strengthen business, commercial and cultural ties throughout the United States.

The Saudi-US Trade Group is a 501c6 not-for-profit business association.  Its members include the Exxon Mobil Corporation, the El-Seif Group and the (Saudi) Committee for International Trade. Please visit at www.sustg.org.

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