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Asia House gives boost to Riyadh’s booming forums business

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27 Feb 2020 04:02:20 GMT9
27 Feb 2020 04:02:20 GMT9

In a sweeping speech at the finale of the Asia House Trade Dialogue in Riyadh, Lord Green, former British minister and banker, contrasted the Saudi Arabia he encountered on his first visit in the 1970s with the booming metropolis it has become today.

One sign of that change is the fact that the Saudi capital is able to attract big international business forums like the Asia House event.

Just in the past week, the Kingdom entertained major players like the Institute for International Finance, the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors, the Saudi Aramco international conference on carbon capture, as well as a stack of smaller trade events.

With the World Economic Forum, the Future Investment Initiative and the G20 Summit itself in November all still to come, with many others also in the pipeline — this coming weekend, the World Health Organization is in town — it looks like 2020 will be the year Saudi Arabia fully arrives on the global forums circuit.

Lord Green’s event, in partnership with the Saudi British Bank (SABB), was a welcome addition to the scene in Riyadh. The timing was both perfect and problematic.

Asia House exists to spread knowledge and awareness of the booming investment markets of Asia, of which China is by far the biggest. With China in the grip of coronavirus, the effect the outbreak will have on the Chinese and global economy is of intense interest to investors.

But the epidemic also hampered Chinese participation in the dialogue. With increasing restrictions  on air travel due to the outbreak, Chinese experts could simply not get a plane to Riyadh.

Asia House exists to spread knowledge and awareness of the booming investment markets of Asia, of which China is by far the biggest.

Frank Kane

Asia House overcame this problem with a Skype link between Riyadh and Beijing to interview Victor Gao, an expert on the country’s economy and International relations. The video session turned into one of the highlights of the event.

Gao gave it straight to Riyadh. Though the situation was getting better outside the Hubei epicenter, the whole of China was mobilized to combat the outbreak, he said, and forecast that the country would lose the equivalent of one month’s working days in its manufacturing sector. Gao predicted that the Chinese economy would rebound quickly.

He was just as assertive on the question of US-China trade, which was a major focus of the dialogue.

The tariff war between the two countries was “mutually destructive,” but the main damage was being done to US consumers, who were having to pay higher prices for imports.

From Bejing, the confrontation with President Donald Trump was just a temporary blip in relations.

“China has been around for 5,000 years, and will continue to be a major player regardless of what happens in Washington,” he said.

Other participants in the dialogue were keen to emphasize the role of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East as the pivot on which East-West trade would hinge.

Simon Penney, former banker turned British trade commissioner for the Middle East, told how post-Brexit Britain wanted to make the Middle East — and the Arabian Gulf countries in particular — equals in a new trading relationship, rather than just a destination for British exports.

“The historical model has been Britain selling to the Middle East. Now we are looking at long-term partnerships,” he said.

Other sessions looked at the role of women in the new business environment of Saudi Arabia, as well as the crucial role renewables will play in Middle East economies as the global debate over climate change hots up.

The keynote — which encompassed all these themes and more — was delivered by Lubna Olayan, chairman of SABB and one of the world’s leading businesswomen. She covered the risks posed by the coronavirus, but also the threat posed by trade wars to the world’s commercial lifelines and discussed the “politicization” of trade in international relations.

She left the dialogue in no doubt that Saudi Arabia was firmly against these trends, and that it would be part of the mission of the Saudi business community to get that message across loud and clear in the run-up to the G20.

“We stand at a crossroads. Do we allow trade tensions to rise? No. That is not an option,” she declared.

  • Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai
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