THE close relationship shared between the United States and Saudi Arabia, is not just a diplomatic one. It is also a solid partnership based on business, history, and friendship. It dates back to 1933 when Standard Oil of California [now Chevron] was allowed to look for oil in the Kingdom. They discovered oil in 1938, and in the decades since President Franklin D. Roosevelt met King Abdulaziz on the USS Murphy in 1945 to solidify the relationship, the two countries have never looked back.
That is why the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council plays such a pivotal role in maintaining these historical links between the two countries. Headquartered in Washington D.C., and with a fully staffed office in Riyadh, it was established in 1993 to improve mutual knowledge and understanding between the private sectors of the Untied States and Saudi Arabia.
In an interview with the Saudi Gazette, the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council’s CEO Edward Burton said, “We don’t just promote American goods and services but we also try to position American capital into appropriate investments vehicles in the Saudi market through joint ventures and strategic partnerships. One of the brightest incentives for American and Saudi businesses who work together is the fact that American companies have the best technology out there.”
It is a lot more than US technology that motivates everyone at the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council [USSABC]. Knowing the fundamental importance of promoting trade and investment between the two countries, the USSABC activities include organizing trade missions, conferences, seminars and high level networking events. The council’s activities are focused on highlighting the more than $1 trillion in Saudi earmarked projects and market opportunities in Saudi Arabia. Burton has counseled hundreds of Fortune 500 companies about doing work in the Kingdom, as well as small and middle tier firms in a variety of industries such construction, medical and pharmaceutical, defense and security, and technical services.
Speaking to the Saudi Gazette, Burton said: “Getting past the negative portrayal of the region in general and the apprehensions and misunderstandings in the American corporate community has been rewarding. We are always sending trade missions to the Kingdom. So many of these companies are new to this and have had no prior exposure to the Saudi market. They arrive with the same apprehensions and worry about potential logistics. But once they have been to Saudi Arabia, we quickly dispel the corporate security issues of dealing in the Kingdom.”
The success of these trips and networking opportunities speak for themselves, through the financial statistics and deal making. Saudi Arabia was the top destination for US arms in 2014, and trade grew 52 percent in 2015 to over $10 billion.
“The biggest tool that we have is the fact that the proof is in the engagement,” Burton told Saudi Gazette. “We’ve had complete misperceptions with small and medium size US companies. Sometimes American executives have signed up to go to Saudi Arabia, but then pull of out the trip because something’s happened in the region. Often they say their spouse has said they express concern for their safety, but then they go over there and they meet Saudis, they see concerns about security are totally overblown. They then come back and become our best ambassadors for what we are doing,” he added.
That is music to the ears of the membership base of approximately 400 leading American and Saudi companies that belong to the USSABC. Companies that are members from the Kingdom include Aramco, SABIC, The Olayan Group, Al Kholi Group and Dallah Albaraka Holding Company. US companies that are members include Chevron, GE, Lockheed Martin, Morgan Stanley and IBM. Thanks to strong US and Saudi government support, deep-seated market knowledge and contacts within Saudi Arabia, the USSABC is able to accelerate the speed and ease of doing business in the Kingdom. The Business Council is co-chaired by Abdallah S. Jum’ah, chairman of The Saudi Investment Bank (SAIB), and Peter J. Robertson, former vice chairman of Chevron. The council’s Board of Directors consists of prominent businessmen from the US and Saudi Arabia. This bilateral mix of business and diplomacy prompted Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubier to tell the Washington Post while he was the Kingdom’s Ambassador to the United States in 2015, “When push comes to shove, this relationship is unshakable.”
Given the strong ties in the diplomatic and business worlds, the council’s CEO Burton added: “Strategically it pays for Saudi companies to look at commercial linkages with US companies. It is a big incentive and I think that is why there is so much interest on the Saudi side to invest in the United States also.”
Burton was the perfect person to head the USSABC. Prior to joining the Business Council, he served as the commercial attaché at the American Embassy in Riyadh. Prior to serving in Riyadh he worked as the international trade director for former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman. He told the Saudi Gazette: “This was a natural continuation of what I have done and what I have found satisfying and that is assisting American business overseas.” But it’s the time that he spent living in Saudi Arabia that Burton reflects on a lot.
Acknowledging how critically important his fellow colleagues are at the business council’s offices in Riyadh Burton added: “The hospitably of the Saudi people was overwhelming when I lived there, and all those relationships last to this day. What impressed me the most is the quality of life you can have in the Kingdom. Here in the US it is more 24/7. But the rhythm of life in Saudi Arabia suits productivity.” That should make companies in the Kingdom and the United States extremely happy, and the future of the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council stronger than ever.