"I consider Germany to be my second home"
Interview with the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, H.E. Prof. Dr. med. Ossama bin Abdul Majed Shobokshi
Not only is Saudi Arabia Germany‘s mostimportant source of oil, but the country is offering investment possibilities of more than 600 billion U.S. dollars over the next decade and a half. The close relationship between the desert state and Germany has been documented of late through top-levelv isits, most recently by the visit of the Saudi King, Abdullah ibn Abdelaziz Al Sa‘ud early last November in Berlin. ARAB FORUM spoke with Prof. Dr. med. Ossama bin Abdul Majed Shobokshi, the Saudi Arabian ambassador and a profound expert on Germany, about King Abdullah‘s visit to Berlin, about the changes and economic potential in Saudi Arabia and about his very personal relationship to Germany.
ARAB FORUM: Your Excellency, His Royal Highness, King Abdullah ibn Abdelaziz Al Sa‘ud, was in Germany in November on a state visit. What was expected from this visit?
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: His Majesty, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah ibn Abdelaziz Al Sa‘ud was in Berlinfrom the 7th to the 9th of November. This was his first visit to Germany as King after having come to visit in 2001 as crown prince. We are pleased that an intensive diplomatic exchange was held between Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel and His Majesty to coordinate standpoints relating to various conflicts in the world. As I wasgiven to understand from the Foreign Ministry in Germany, they wanted very much to learn the opinion, position and take of the Saudi government on points of view of certain problems in the Near East, including the positions on Iran, on Lebanon, on Palestine,and on Iraq.
These are focal points that interest German politics and they want to coordinate them with the Saudi government, and learn the Saudi Arabian government‘s analysis andstandpoint on them.
ARAB FORUM: The visit of your King to Germany, the visit of the chancellor at the beginning of February 2007 and the previous two visits by then Chancellor Schröder in Saudi Arabia document the good relationship between your country and Germany. In which areas is this relationship especially good and in which areas could it be improved?
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: Thank God the relationship between SaudiArabia and Germany are very good.They are based primarily on political, economic and cultural levels.They are in agreement on almost every point, especially concerning politics. In most issues, there is a coordination between Foreign Minister Dr.Steinmeier and the Saudi Foreign Minister H.R.H Prince Saud al-Feisal as well as the chancellor and the King, as was also the case between him and the former chancellor. There is often a coordination of political standpoints.
ARAB FORUM: Do you expecta visit by the chancellor again to Saudi Arabia in the foreseeable future?
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: The chancellor is always sincerely welcome in Saudi Arabia. We would be pleased if the occasion arises. We hope that the chancellor will visit Saudi Arabia in 2008. We heartily welcome all of Germany‘s dignitaries in Saudi Arabia.
ARAB FORUM: Without a doubt, the economic relationship to Germany as the second largest importeris very close. Some 220 German firms are represented in Saudi Arabia. Where is further potential to befound?
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: Germany is Saudi Arabia‘s third mostimportant importing country. SaudiArabia is in 48th place among the countries Germany imports from.Foreign trade for both countries amounts to 6.7 billion euro. SaudiArabia‘s imports amount to 4.6 billion euro while Germany‘s imports from Saudi Arabia add up to 1.5 billion euro – mostly oil. We hope that German firms with their know-how and their technology will become prime companies in Saudi Arabia.There are great possibilities forexpansion. Saudi Arabia is building six economic cities at present. Fortunately, some German firms are already involved in them. SaudiArabia is constructing a railway running east to west and north to south. A number of German companies are also already participating in that. We hope very much that more German firms will become represented in Saudi Arabia.
ARAB FORUM: Saudi Arabia is investing a great deal in further development of the infrastructure. Which projects are important and have special priority? You already mentioned the railway.
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: Roads are being built for the modernization of the infrastructure as well as the railway network with a total of 3,650 km from east to west and from Saudi Arabia‘s industrial cities in the north to the ports in the south, east, and west. At the same time, phosphate, aluminum and iron mines are being opened up in the north and south. We hope to create millions of new jobs with this and achieve a decentralization at the same time. We are speaking of 640 billion U.S. dollars that will be spent in Saudi Arabia over the next fifteen years to develop the infrastructure and build the economic cities.
ARAB FORUM: As the country of the Holy Shrines, Saudi Arabia is a center of pilgrim tourism with more than 12 million visitors annually. What other forms of tourism is interesting and important to the country?
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: Three million pilgrims alone come duringthe Hajj period and aboutnine million during the rest ofthe year to visit the Holy Sites. In addition, there are wonderful beaches in Saudi Arabia. There are beautiful mountains and valleys that are hardly known and are attractive. Many groups of scuba divers from Germany visit us on the Red Sea. There are people who are interestedin archaeological sites, forexample, Mada‘in Saleh,Masmak or Daria. There are many possibilities for vacationing in Saudi Arabia.
ARAB FORUM: The King has taken legal reform in hand. What are his goals?
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: Basically, the goal is to simplify and modernize the legal regulations for the native as well as foreign population of the country so that their rights can be protected. Saudi Arabia is in an ongoing stateo f modernization.
ARAB FORUM: Saudi Arabia provides jobs for 6.1 million foreign workers. The “Saudization” program has come into effect to encourage more employment for the state‘s own citizens. What is its status?
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: Saudi Arabia has 23 million inhabitants. 50 % of them are under 20 years of age. We are a young people. That is the reason for the “Saudization” policy, to find employment for young Saudis. 2.3 to 2.5 million jobs will be created within the framework of new projects. New technologies will enable the partial and gradual replacement of the 6.1 million guests who work in our country and the creation of new jobs to promote the “Saudization.” At present, the unemployment quota is 5.7 %.
ARAB FORUM: Which occupational groups are open to women?
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: All of them, except of course those connected with physical labor. All vocations, beginning with educators, physicians, nurses, caregivers, technical assistants, academic careers at the universities all the way to deans of faculties and universities, all areopen to women.
ARAB FORUM: There is a notedrising interest in studying in Germany and the number of scholarship recipients from Saudi Arabia. Inwhich disciplines does Germany offer the most and where are gaps yet to be filled?
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: I myself am a product of a scholarship from Saudi Arabia to Germany.There is the King Abdullah Scholarship Program that sends young menand women abroad to complete their education, be it a university education, be it post graduate studies or studies to earn a Master degree or Phd. degree. At the moment, over 15,000 students from Saudi Arabia are studying in the USA, in Canada about 7,000, in England close to 1,000, and in Germany only 250. We are making efforts to raise this number to 1,500 under the condition that our students are equally allowed to study any subject as are the German students.
ARAB FORUM: Which subjects are meant?
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: Of main^interest are the technical studies,engineering and computer sciences, high technology subjects and medicine.
ARAB FORUM: To a certain extent, you yourself could serve as an example of an education in Germany. You earned a degree in medicine in Erlangen and finished your specialist training in Leonberg. What were your expectations and memories when you returned to Germany?
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: My government is very interested in obtaining good connections with Germany. The fact that I studied here and consider Germany as my second home serves the interest of both countries. I am in the fortunate position of having studied and spent my youth here. Now I return as a relatively older man to serve both countries. I very much hope that I am able to build a bridge of understanding between both nations because, basically, both countries are similar and enjoy good friendly relations. I also hope very much that more Saudi students can study in Germany, so that they are ambassadors of their country here and can be ambassadors for the Germans when they return to Saudi Arabia.
ARAB FORUM: It may just be a coincidence, but in a short while you will be able to open a new embassy building in the land you studied in. When will it happen and what will be your personal feelings when you do?
Prof. Dr. med. Shobokshi: It is no coincidence; it is an honor for me that I am in the process of building the new Saudi Arabian Embassy. I hope very much that we can open it in the spring of 2008 with high dignitaries as guests.