Business Forum Wrap-up: A Conversation with Omar Bahlaiwa

Published: September 30, 2013

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Editor’s Note:

The US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum in Los Angeles brought together over 1100 business people, officials and specialists, including about 250 from Saudi Arabia, to focus on the commercial opportunities open in Saudi Arabia as a result of a dramatic economic expansion. Over $1 trillion in investments over the next decade is estimated to be on the table.

SUSRIS talked with Eng. Omar Bahlaiwa before the Forum and he explained what was behind the series of US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forums, the first in Chicago in 2010 and the second in Atlanta in 2011:

“The idea for these events has been to expand the commercial bridges between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The forums address the long-term business-to-business ties and the opportunities for trade and investment with Saudi Arabia. They focus on the openings in Saudi Arabia for working with our American partners, building on the very close business relations we’ve enjoyed for decades.”

At the conclusion of the three day Forum SUSRIS sat down with Mr. Bahlaiwa to get his impressions on what was accomplished at the event. We present that exclusive interview for your consideration here.

The 3rd US-Saudi-Business Opportunities Forum was held under the patronage of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Commerce and Industry and organized by the Committee for International Trade (CIT), the U.S.-Saudi Business Council and the Saudi-US Trade Group (SUSTG).

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

Business Forum Wrap-up: A Conversation with Omar Bahlaiwa

[SUSRIS] Bringing together Saudi business opportunities and American partners and investors, and building and sustaining the bridges between Americans and Saudis in the commercial-sphere. Those were the overarching objectives of the US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum. Your organization, the Committee for International Trade, alongside the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council and the Saudi-US Trade Group just wrapped up the third of these milestone events. Did you meet your objectives?

[Eng. Omar Bahlaiwa] It was a home run. Everyone did a great job. We achieved our goals. The number of attendees was massive – well over eleven hundred as of the morning of Day 3. Another important signal was how many participants asked to have more and more such forums. If the events didn’t meet their needs they would not have asked to keep the Forum series going.

After the last session finished there were still people around, talking. That shows how enthusiastic they were about the opportunities to get business done at the Forum. We had policymakers to business people, technocrats to bureaucrats. All of them were interested in one way or another. At the end of the day the atmosphere at the Forum helps to sustain the bridges between the USA and KSA. I would also say it’s not one-way business or one-way investment or one-way trade. It’s in both directions. People are talking about investing in Saudi Arabia as much as they are talking about investing in the USA. People are talking about transferring technology to Saudi Arabia as much as transferring business to USA. If we have finance, you have technology. If we have oil, you have the engine. So the engine needs the oil and the oil needs the engine.

People Omar Bahlaiwa
Eng. Omar Bahlaiwa, CIT Secretary General [Photo: Khalid Habash for SUSTG]

I also believe that we have achieved an important goal in the area of SMEs, the small and medium enterprises. Most of the SMEs that attended the Forums have found opportunities and that is encouraging to them and to me.

The Forums have also engaged students, another achievement that we are pleased about. We have a program called student ambassadors. The students, all of whom are specially selected, are working in all aspects of the Forum. They gain tremendous experience and networking. At the same time they pass on Saudi culture, traditions, information and friendship to the U.S. attendees. All of these things helped the forum environment to be more comfortable, friendly, and effective.

We were very pleased to see U.S. Commerce Secretary Pritzker, who played an important role in this Forum, is coming to Saudi Arabia in 2014. We are planning to have another forum in Riyadh around the time of her visit. That’s an extremely positive contribution to the Forum’s momentum.

[SUSRIS] What was the result of catering to Los Angeles, to California and to the American West by holding the 3rd US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum where you did?

[Bahlaiwa] We have long intended to come to California with an event like the Forum. We had the first one in the north, in Chicago, the second one in the south, in Atlanta. Now we are in the west. So we are diversifying in terms of geographic location. It puts the spotlight on different sectors and companies. However, as with the first two Forums, participants came from all over the United States and some from overseas. We had about 800 American attendees, out of which only twenty percent were from California. The rest are from all over the country showing that people are following this forum wherever it is.

At the same time we are trying to focus on opportunities for business between California and Saudi Arabia. We’re trying to benefit out of the California experience and the know-how that exists in many sectors. On the other hand we encourage investors or buyers for California products for export to Saudi Arabia. There were special sessions on California opportunities and encouraging remarks from civic and trade promotion leaders. So it’s a win-win situation. It’s mutual interest and it’s mutual benefit that has been the hallmark of the US-Saudi commercial relationship.

In the end it’s not the forum itself. It’s what comes after the forum. I am sure that business will follow. People have been exchanging cards and looking for partners. Saudis were looking for companies to partner with. Americans were looking for companies to partner with. So what I’ve seen is active people – people eager to do business. We can measure the activity in a few months and see how it’s going.

I should add that this month Undersecretary of Commerce Sanchez, who participated in the Forum, is leading a delegation to Saudi Arabia. He has always been very encouraging about the business relationship between the countries and was enthusiastic about the upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia.

People US Saudi Business Opportunities Forum USSBOF Panel

[SUSRIS] You had business people making deals, and the Minister of Commerce and the Secretary of Commerce sitting down and talking about the overarching relationship. All levels were represented. That alone made the Forum like few other gatherings of business people.

[Bahlaiwa] Yes. The Forum is under the umbrella of the Ministry of Commerce and the Minister is our leader. The Minister also invited the Governor of SAGIA, the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority since we wanted the Forum to help American investors understand the policies and regulations in the Kingdom and how to get started in business there. In this way we have enlightened the business people here how to do business with Saudi Arabia – how to export to the Kingdom, import from the Kingdom, invest in the Kingdom, even how to live in the Kingdom.

The Forum also included concurrent panels of specialists and officials who could dive more deeply into the specifics from a broad spectrum of sectors. They covered the overall volume of business that is open in their areas, out of the $1 trillion plus expansion over the next decade.

People Omar Bahlaiwa Khaled Al Otaibi CIT Chambers of Commerce
Saudi Chambers of Commerce Sec. Gen Khaled Al Otaibi and CIT Sec. Gen Omar Bahlaiwa at the US-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum [Photo: Khalid Habash for SUSTG]

As I was saying these opportunities are not only large projects, but also medium, and small openings. Even micro-small businesses have opportunities. Some companies, like Aramco and SABIC, have advised the American audience on how to register as a vendor to their companies.

This year we invited national industrialization companies to the Forum. Modon, for example, was able to explain to people how to use industrial real estate developed by the government. The Saudi Industrial Development Fund, SIDF, was here this year to explain to people how to get loans. All of these organizations came armed with detailed materials and their presentations provided solid insights and perspectives for American business people to understand the ways to get business done with Saudi Arabia.

[SUSRIS] So to use your metaphor of hitting the homerun, everybody stepped up to the plate?

[Bahlaiwa] I think they did and I’m confident the participants will take advantage of what was presented at this Forum. Everyone was eager to work together.

[SUSRIS] A Forum objective was to highlight the importance of the relationship overall, not just business. We heard quite a stirring, heartfelt speech from outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Smith. He talked about his travels around the Kingdom and what it meant for him to get to know Saudi Arabians in a way that most people don’t know.

[Bahlaiwa] Yes, it was a very well told story about the culture and traditions of Saudi Arabia but also about the diversity in the Kingdom. It brought to mind what the people from the United States did when they came to Saudi Arabia in the thirties. They looked to not only do business, but they also looked at the people of Saudi Arabia. The idea was that it was important to understand the Saudi culture, to understand the Saudi laws and regulations, to get to know the Saudis and to do business with them.

In the same way, when our students are sent overseas to the United States the idea is not for them to only get an education but to get an understanding of the culture of the United States. They will exchange cultures and have an exchange of common understanding. These broadminded people from both sides develop acceptance of the culture on both sides. Saudis and Americans have much common ground.

So as much as we care about exchanging business the idea is to exchange culture as well. That is why we invited Saudis to the Forum, like Dr. Selwa al-Hazzaa, a member of the Shura Council, to talk about understanding the culture of Saudi Arabia. That’s part of the process if you want to do business in Saudi Arabia. If you want to establish a business in Saudi Arabia it is important to understand them.

[SUSRIS] What’s next for these Forums?

[Bahlaiwa] The next one will hopefully be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March at the time of the visit of Secretary Pritzker. We also want to come back again to the states. If not next year, maybe 2015. We haven’t decided yet where to take it. We will see.

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

Omar Bahlaiwa

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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