By: Ghazanfar Ali Khan
Relations between the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia are excellent and cordial. The two countries have similar perspectives on economic, political, cultural, and social issues. The current year 2022 marks the 150 years of opening the first Dutch Consulate in Jeddah in 1972. The Netherlands and the Kingdom have been working closely at the bilateral level in many areas. The Netherlands is an important economic partner for Saudi Arabia, with two-way trade exceeding SR 24 billion in 2019.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Leaders MENA Magazine, Janet Alberda, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Saudi Arabia, gave an overview of Saudi-Dutch relations in different sectors.
Here is the excerpt of the interview–
Leaders MENA: Saudi Arabia shares an excellent history of relations with the Netherlands. Both sides have seen many high-level visits during the past. How do you personally evaluate the relation between the Kingdom and the Netherlands in political, economic, and cultural fields?
Amb Albderda: Relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom of the Netherlands are deeply rooted and longstanding. 2022 is the year that will mark 150 years of opening the first Dutch Consulate in Jeddah in 1872; since that time, our ties and cooperation further unfolded in many areas.
That is having said, I am proud to serve in a country where relations are historic. The history of this very special relationship has been captured in photographs by Dutch officials, many of these taken by Daniel van der Meulen, our Consul General in Jeddah, in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. We assembled texts and images and produced a unique photographic document which we will reprint in 2022, a symbolic year.
LEADERS MENA: Please provide an overview of the Netherlands-Saudi trade and investment relations, their volume, and their features. Please provide comments on how they have evolved over the years.
Amb Alberda: As mentioned, we have historical relations, and memory to many is the Saudi – Hollandi bank which was the first bank to operate in KSA. Royal Dutch Airlines KLM was one of the first airlines to fly scheduled flights to and from Saudi Arabia in 1950.
The famous Amsterdam – Dammam direct flights were followed this year with a direct flight between Amsterdam and Riyadh, of which I am very proud: four direct flights every week between the two Kingdoms. In 2018, the Netherlands ranked one of the top investors in KSA with 49.5 billion riyals investments and 225 investment licenses according to SAGIA (now MISA) at that time. The trade volume in 2019 reached 5.3 billion euros (24 billion Saudi Riyals), mostly in oil and gas, health and pharmaceuticals, machinery, and food. Also, the Netherlands ranks the 8th largest exporter to Saudi Arabia. We see growth, and we are eager to enhance trade volume and the exchange of expertise and technology. KSA currently ranks 62 on “ease of doing business” on the World bank‘s scale, and we believe this will reflect on Dutch companies interesting in establishing a local presence in the Kingdom. We value all efforts of the Saudi government on reforms to attract foreign direct investments, and we work closely to ensure the participation of the Netherlands companies and institutions in the Vision’s 2030 objectives.
LEADERS MENA: How many Dutch companies have a direct or indirect presence in Saudi Arabia? Which are the major ones? Please provide a few names and the projects they are handling?
Amb Alberda: Actually, many Dutch companies are operating in Saudi Arabia that has a direct presence; let me mention a few:
- Phillips Healthcare (Signed an MoU with the Ministry of health on e-health).
- Signify (One of Saudi Arabia’s smart LED lighting market-leading players. It has illuminated some landmarks in the country with its energy-efficient LED lighting systems, such as the Kingdom Tower in Riyadh and the Jeddah Flag Pole, the tallest in the world with 13 special lights, representing the 13 governorates of Saudi Arabia).
- Friesland Campina (Strong existence in the Saudi market since 1950 with a big marketing and sales office in Jeddah).
- KLM (One of the first airlines to establish an agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to have scheduled flights to and from KSA/NL in the 1950s).
- DACOM Systems, a Dutch agribusiness company, providing equipment and software for Irrigation Management, Crop Recording, Disease Management, etc.). The Company is carrying out several projects with MEWA and private sector companies. The projects aim to increase the usage of water-saving methods and technologies in the Saudi agriculture sector.
- Other companies are Shell, Fugro-Suhaimi, Arcadis, Boskalis, Royal Haskoning DHV, and many others, including SME to expand here in the Kingdom.
LEADERS MENA: Is there any plan for a Saudi official or delegation to visit the Netherlands or vice-versa soon?
Amb Alberda: The Netherlands Minister of Foreign Affairs visited Saudi Arabia in February 2020, just before the outbreak of the COVID 19 Pandemic. We recently had Parliamentary Elections in the Netherlands, and a new Executive will be formed in the coming months. After the installment of our new Government, I hope our countries will reach out to each other physically as there are many issues to be discussed, whether they concern our bilateral relationship or our positioning on regional and international issues. I also hope that our first fruitful political consultations, which were held virtually in October 2020 at the official level, will have a follow-up after the summer – in person – this time. We also expect a visit of the Netherlands Ambassador at large for Human Rights after the summer, as well as a visit by our Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief. All visits that have been agreed upon in principle by the Saudi side
LEADERS MENA: Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to enhance bilateral cooperation in the field of air transport. What is the status of this MoU as of now? A new route between the Dutch capital Amsterdam and the Saudi capital Riyadh was to be operated by Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM). What is the status of this flight?
Amb Alberda: The status is currently active, the MoU is being implemented. Together with KLM, GACA, and Riyadh Airports, we have re-established the direct connection between Schiphol International Airport in Amsterdam and King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. Now KLM flies to Amsterdam directly from two Saudi cities, Riyadh and Dammam. Currently, KLM flies twice per week, and we hope to increase the frequency of flights once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
LEADERS MENA: SABIC has announced a plan to build a plant to produce plastic circular polymers in the Netherlands? What is the progress on this project?
Amb Alberda: This project is at the moment in an early stage of construction. The current expectation is that the construction and preparations for a start-up will be completed by the third quarter of 2022. The project consists of two parts: 1) a pyrolysis plant in a joint venture with SABIC’s partner Plastic Energy, called SPEAR (SABIC Plastic Energy Advanced Recycling) and 2) a treatment plant built by SABIC only to purify the output of the pyrolysis plant. While the first plant is supported by a Dutch grant under the DEI+ scheme (a subsidy program), the Dutch authorities have given their commitment to grant support for the second plant too. Given the demo-scale character of these plants, these grants are instrumental in making the business case feasible.
LEADERS MENA: What is the status of cooperation between the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia in the agriculture sector? A virtual conference was held recently between Saudi and Dutch officials in which they discussed a range of issues related to agriculture cooperation. Please provide a brief about the meeting and its outcome.
Amb Alberda: The Netherlands is exporting a lot of agricultural produce to the Kingdom. During the COVID crisis, it even rose by 10%. However, to feed the World with a fast-growing population and bring down the ecological footprint, the Netherlands is stimulating to produce closer to the consumer. Local production in KSA will be an answer to this question. The reason why The Netherlands is involved in building greenhouses in several places in the Kingdom, introduced Tilapia farming in Saudi Arabia, building hatcheries in different regions in the Kingdom, delivering propagation material in horticulture, but also open-field agriculture. Next to this, the Netherlands likes to continue to export products to KSA, which need extensive water production methods; in this way, the scarce water resources in KSA will be saved.
Coming back to your concrete question about the virtual conference, this was about the export of Saudi horticultural produce to The Netherlands and was a meeting between MEWA, the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, and the Dutch Fresh Produce Centre. We were discussing the possibility of selling Saudi produce to the Dutch and European markets. As you probably know, a lot of trade in vegetables and fruit, produced worldwide is distributed via the Netherlands. Good to emphasize here that the Netherlands is the world’s 2nd largest exporter of agriculture products, reached 95.6 billion euros in 2020, but also one of the world’s top importers. In 2020, imports of the Netherlands of agriculture products were 67.1 billion euros, including 27.3 billion for re-exports. In this way, The Netherlands can deliver year-round production of fresh fruit and vegetables in our own country and the EU and beyond. During the webinar was discussed how Saudi produce could find their way to The Netherlands and the EU, during times when Saudi Arabia will have an overproduction in their greenhouses. And the conclusion was that in times of maximum production capacity in KSA (in winter times), the production capacity in the Netherlands is at the lowest level and the other way around. Almost per definition, this means that the Netherlands and KSA are natural partners to cooperate in this field. The reason why a subsequent meeting on this is planned already for the near future.
Also, here and in this field, we have a historical relation. The Kingdom and the Netherlands have longstanding fruitful agricultural ties. It started 50 years ago with the appointing of the first Dutch Agricultural Counsellor to Saudi Arabia, and the arrival of the first delivery of seed potatoes from the Netherlands to Saudi Arabia. Even long before that, over the 1950s the Dutch dairy products became household brands in the region, a popular example until today is Rainbow Milk (Abu Kous أبو قوس).
LEADERS MENA: The Netherlands has a lot to offer to tourists. What is the status of tourism relations? How many Saudis visited the Netherlands in 2018 and 2019?
Amb Alberda: There are many great places in the Netherlands, and we have indeed much to offer. A record of 17.6 million tourists visited the Netherlands in 2017, a size of the Dutch population at that time. The Embassy participated at Riyadh Travel Fair in 2016 and 2017 and at European Days every year to promote the Netherlands as a unique destination rich in culture, traditions, and natural diversity. We’ve seen quite a substantial surge of Saudi tourists in recent years. It is difficult to provide concrete statistics as tourists could enter the Netherlands using Schengen visas issued by another Schengen country, but we estimate that about 20,000 Saudi nationals visited the Netherlands in 2019.
We believe that direct flights will also reflect on the number of tourists visiting the Netherlands in the future, as well as I hope to see Dutch tourists visiting Saudi Arabia with the opening up of the Kingdom and see all its beauty.
LEADERS MENA: The Netherlands has its achievements when it comes to cinema, theatre, art, and music. Saudi Arabia is now opening its entertainment sector. Is there any existing cooperation or possibilities for collaboration in these areas between the two countries? Your comments, please.
Amb Alberda: Thank you for this question. There has been cooperation and collaboration between artists from Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands, and we hope this will further increase in the future. The past few years, we have been active in cinema, organizing our Golden Falcon Arts festival, and we continue to collaborate in the film and arts scene. The first few Saudi artists have visited the Netherlands, for instance, as an in-house artist at the Street Art Museum Amsterdam. In addition, several Dutch artists have been working in the Kingdom, recently for example, in the Noor Festival in Riyadh.
We are now working on some new collaborations, among others showcasing the history of the former Dutch Consulate in al Balad, Jeddah. And scientific collaboration on the topic of the Hajj from a historical point of view. We are very keen on extending ties and connections in the cultural field.
LEADERS MENA: What is the position of the Netherlands in terms of cure and control of COVID? As of now, what is the state of the Netherlands’ economy?
Amb Alberda: We have been facing a second wave of COVID since the outbreak in March 2020. At this moment, more and more people are getting vaccinated. This means the number of people getting ill will start falling sharply. And the number of new hospital admissions is expected to decline. Reopening society step by step is not without risk. But the Government also has to consider the interests of the economy and society at large. That’s why the Government has decided to take the first, cautious step of the reopening plan on 28 April.
It’s still important, however, that everyone keeps following the basic rules. This means washing your hands, keeping your distance, and staying home, and getting tested if you have any symptoms. They were also getting vaccinated as soon as this is possible. People can still infect each other, even when they have been vaccinated; therefore the basic rules are crucial. This will help prevent the virus from spreading.
LEADERS MENA: What is the Netherlands’ position on key regional issues, including the conflict in Yemen, the Syrian crisis, Iranian intransigence, and ME Peace Process?
Amb Alberda: About geopolitics, we could talk a long time and it merits a second interview, but most importantly the Netherlands attaches importance to stability in the region and believes that every conflict should be resolved with a political solution or settlement. I am happy to see that our relations and our discourse cover all topics at various ends and that there are no topics that cannot be discussed – whether we agree or disagree. The Kingdom is an important partner to us when discussing the region and countries in specific, so we look forward to continuing our discourse and engagement.
LEADERS MENA: What are the major priorities of the Netherlands Embassy in Saudi Arabia under your leadership? What has been the biggest challenge?
Amb Alberda: I just arrived seven months ago, and my leadership follows the leadership of my Government – as a diplomat, you could not expect me to give another response. We currently have a defined list of priorities for the coming four years, going from regional stability & security, trade diplomacy, and economic cooperation to human rights and promotion or preservation of international law. And other areas in between, as the pallet of diplomacy, is a wide one. I am looking forward to having physical political consultations this year between the two Kingdoms, but I also would like to see the human rights dialogue take shape physically.
In addition, with my own academic experience in hindsight and overall experience in the region, I would love to intensify some of our cultural ties, make them more known, and – once traveling becomes easier – invite some of them to come to the Kingdom so that we can start sharing experiences again. Witnessing – with own eyes – of developments taking shape is crucial for more understanding, and subsequently, this will feed the dialogue between our two Kingdoms, whether they are at the political level, G2G or B2B. In addition, there are many areas where we can further intensify our cooperation, notably sustainable trade & investment & developments in food security, water but also climate.
Next on my wishlist, and on that of my capital, is to have more dialogue via multilateral mechanisms. As you might know, the Netherlands is one of the founding fathers of the former ‘Common Market’ (now the European Union), and it shows you why multilateralism is such an important concept for us. Like the Kingdom, we are a proud member of the United Nations family, and we value the UN principles like equality and self-determination of nations, respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the obligation of member countries to obey the Charter, to cooperate with the UN Security Council and to use peaceful means to resolve conflicts. We are also a proud member of the European Union, and we could talk about this to a large extent, but we hope to see one day (and inshallah this year) an EU-FTA agreement as we consider this a comprehensive framework of our shared interests. In addition, as a guest country to the G-20 under Italian Chairmanship but with expectation going to more permanent membership, we would also like to see more cooperation and collaboration with countries like KSA in certain areas. Health is one topic, but climate is another major priority
LEADERS MENA: Tell us briefly about your experience of living and working in Saudi Arabia?
Amb Alberda: A short-lived experience, but the experience thus far has been good: well-received (also on protocol terms), great team, great interlocutors, and good to know that NL is well received. A posting 360 degrees different from my previous two postings; also wonderful to receive my family here, which was lovely, and for them to see that Saudi Arabia is on a changing curve and opening up.
In terms of living here: I love the DQ for its nature and walk tracks, but don’t enjoy it so much as I would like to see fewer ‘reconstruction projects’ going around here, there is lots of noise and question arises: why do this, leave the DQ for its purpose and have all renovations going around outside of the DQ. In my opinion, you asked for it.