Khaled M. Alsharif: There are promising areas for enhancing cooperation between the Kingdom and Cyprus

The Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Cyprus, Khaled M. Alsharif, has outlined his country’s actions towards diversification of the Saudi economy and the importance of the highly anticipated NEOM urban development project.

Moreover, he expressed his faith in Cyprus and his hopes that relations between the two countries can grow even closer.

His Excellency was speaking as part of the GOLD magazine’s February Cover Story, featuring 11 heads of diplomatic missions in Cyprus.

The NEOM urban development project was announced in 2017. Can you update us on the progress made since then and explain what it is trying to achieve?

The word ‘NEOM’ itself is very inspiring, since it is derived from the Greek word ‘neo’ (‘new’) and the first letter of the Arabic word ‘Mustaqbal’ (‘future’). What NEOM is trying to achieve – beyond its futuristic designs – is to attract talent, encourage innovation and teach the new generations that the sky is the limit for their dreams and hopes. NEOM is based on five core principles: nature, technology, livability, sustainability and community. In NEOM, the seaside, the desert and the mountains are all on our doorstep. NEOM already has more than 3,000 employees and 60,000 construction workers from 90 countries living and working onsite. Major infrastructure projects including roads, utilities and a hospital have now been completed. There are 4 prominent landmarks in the NEOM project, which have already entered the construction and implementation phase.

The LINE city, which stretches for 170 kilometres, will establish a new concept of urban life centred on humans and nature and will be a unique model for sustainable cities operating with 100% renewable energy.

The OXAGON floating coastal city will take into account the requirements of the circular economy, as it enjoys a strategic location on the Red Sea coast, through which 13% of the world’s trade passes, and includes an integrated port and logistics center at the crossroads of three continents. OXAGON will establish the world’s first fully integrated port and supply chain ecosystem. The port, logistics and rail facilities will be unified, providing world-class productivity with net-zero carbon emissions and setting global standards in technology adoption and environmental sustainability.

The TROJENA project is a destination for sustainable mountain tourism, in which natural landscapes are integrated with unique architecture and advanced technologies. A place based on ecotourism, it is expected to be completed by 2026, and will include a ski village, ultra-luxury family and wellness resorts, various retail stores and restaurants, hosting sports events, art, music, and cultural festivals.

SINDALAH island will be a global destination for luxury marine tourism and it already began receiving visitors at the beginning of this year. Sindalah will be NEOM’s first luxury island and yacht club destination in the Red Sea. The NEOM project aims to develop and diversify the Kingdom’s economy and place it on the map of global leadership in growth and development. It aspires to become a global hub for living and working and, by adopting a new model of sustainability, the project is committed to achieving zero carbon emissions, thus establishing new standards for community health and environmental protection.

Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it is seeking to diversify its economy and reduce its dependency on oil. This is perhaps best expressed by the country’s Vision 2030 programme. What can you tell us about its progress and what challenges have arisen since its launch in 2016?

In Crown Prince HRH Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is a country that cultivates diversity, fosters opportunity and empowers everyone to reach their full potential.

Economic diversification is considered one of the basic pillars of Vision 2030 and Saudi Arabia has witnessed great progress in this field. For example, non-oil revenues have increased significantly in recent years, and investments in sectors such as tourism, entertainment, sports and technology have also yielded results, demonstrating the Kingdom’s potential to not be dependent only on oil. The Saudi economy is the largest in the Middle East and the Arab world and one of the 20 biggest economies in the world. The Saudi market is also characterized by rapid growth and its strategic location, which has helped increase foreign direct investment in the Kingdom to about $200 billion.

Despite these achievements, challenges remain. The transition away from an oil-dependent economy is complex and requires continuous effort and adaptation. However, the progress achieved so far indicates a strong foundation for future growth and development. As for social reform, which is another core pillar of Vision 2030, women’s empowerment and youth engagement are top priorities. Female workforce participation has doubled over the past four years, reaching 37% and clearly surpassing the Vision 2030 target of 30%. Saudi Arabia maintains equal job opportunities and wages for both genders. Youth unemployment has significantly decreased and the overall unemployment rate has fallen from 11.6% to 8%. Sustainability is another key part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 as the Kingdom strives towards a Net Zero future by 2060. With a commitment to clean energy and sustainability, the Kingdom is leading the charge in tackling energy and climate challenges with innovative solutions such as the Circular Carbon Economy (CCE) and an increasingly diverse energy mix, in which 50% of energy will come from renewable sources by 2030. Vision 2030 is transforming cities and elevating the quality of life by introducing sustainable urban greening, which provides abundant green spaces and opportunities to connect with nature. Moreover, the Saudi and the Middle East Green Initiatives, launched by Crown Prince HRH Mohammed bin Salman in 2021, show that the Kingdom fully recognises its share of responsibility in advancing the fight against the climate change.

We have seen notable investments by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund into sports like football, golf and boxing. How do these investments tie in with the country’s ambitions?

The fact that 63% of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 30 undoubtedly makes sport very inspiring to youth, offering entertainment and social interaction. Sport can also be a way to bridge differences. Apart from that, sport is another of the Vision 2030 strategies to diversify the Saudi economy away from its dependency on oil. The Saudi sports sector in general has witnessed remarkable development, with a growth of 170% during the past three years and the size of the sports market in the Kingdom reached $7.2 billion in 2023. The market value of the Roshn Saudi Professional League exceeds $1 billion, making it among the highest-value leagues in the world. Those in charge of the Saudi Professional League are making great efforts to attract more sponsors and sign broadcast deals with international media companies. Currently, Saudi League matches are broadcast in about 140 countries and broadcast revenues have increased by 650% since the joining of prominent stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema. There are many Saudi investments in sports, such as the Dakar Rally, Formula 1, golf, combat sports (WWE, boxing), tennis, cricket and Esports.

In 2021, total trade between Saudi Arabia and Cyprus was just over €60 million, with Saudi exporting around €40 million worth of products to Cyprus and €21.6 million going the other way. What sectors do our two countries trade in? Are there other areas of trade that can be explored?

The most important commodities exported to Cyprus in 2021 were glass and its derivatives, paper and cardboard, and plastic products. The main goods imported from Cyprus are machinery, mechanical tools, ships, boats, floating facilities and animal feed. During last month, a delegation from Invest Cyprus visited the Kingdom to discuss ways of collaboration and new areas of trade exchange between the two countries. We also note that the cooperation established between the Saudi and Cyprus Chambers of Commerce can also contribute to broadening mutual commercial relations.

Last year, Cyprus’ Deputy Minister of Tourism earmarked Saudi Arabia as a potentially significant tourism market for the island. Now that direct flights have been established between Cyprus and three Saudi cities (Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam), has there been an uptick in visitors from Saudi Arabia? What do Saudi citizens find attractive about Cyprus as a tourism destination? Are there any initiatives underway to further promote tourism and foster enhanced collaboration between the two nations in this pivotal sector?

Yes, last year there was an increase in the number of Saudi visitors to Cyprus, estimated at approximately 7,700. Operating direct flights between the two countries has helped greatly in increasing the number of Saudi tourists. Cyprus, as the closest European country to the Kingdom and known as a safe country with wonderful beaches, is very attractive to our people. An agreement in the field of tourism is ready to be signed and it will definitely open more ways of cooperation. The launch of direct flights between Cyprus and Saudi Arabia was a remarkable development, and holders of Cypriot passports can easily secure their tourist entry visa to Saudi Arabia, either electronically or upon arrival. In order to become a hub of global tourism, major entertainment, heritage and cultural sites in the Kingdom, such as Diriyah near Riyadh, AlUla in the northwest, and Al-Soudah in the Asir region, have been developed for that purpose and, in 2023, the number of foreign visitors to the Kingdom reached 27 million. I hope more Cypriots will include Saudi Arabia in their list of holiday destinations.

Our two countries have also signed a Framework Cooperation (FCP) promoting investments in areas of mutual concern What exactly are those ‘areas’ and what other industries exhibit promise in furthering collaboration between Cyprus and Saudi Arabia?

Areas of common interest are energy, transportation, communications, healthcare, travel and tourism. Other promising areas for enhancing cooperation between the Kingdom and Cyprus are shipbuilding and maintenance, financial services and technology, wind and solar energy.

Are there any specific policy changes that you believe would be instrumental in further boosting bilateral relations between Cyprus and Saudi Arabia?

Yes. They include increasing reciprocal visits between the two countries, whether at the official, commercial or cultural level, promoting Cyprus in Saudi Arabia, facilitating Entry Visa obtainment for Saudi citizens, and organising cultural events in both countries. The Government of Cyprus’ new incentive for Third Country Nationals to attract foreign companies and skilled talent to Cyprus is a very good strategy. Cyprus has great potential to grow as a tech hub and a dynamic financial centre within the EU.

How do you perceive Cyprus’ lifestyle and culture? Are there specific aspects of local life that have left a lasting impression on you during your time here?

How time flies! Indeed, five years have already passed on your beautiful island, full of nice experiences, valuable friendships, while making every effort to establish the first Saudi Embassy in Cyprus and to enhance bilateral relations on political, economic and cultural levels. Cyprus has captured my heart with the friendliness and hospitality of its people, fine climate, beautiful nature and easy lifestyle. I can certainly say that my family and I have felt at home and will always have fond memories of Cyprus. During my stay, I have been impressed by the number of Cypriots that I have met who have worked in Saudi Arabia, contributing to its development, and were grateful to have job opportunities there during difficult times for Cyprus. I wish Saudi people to have the opportunity to explore Cyprus and enjoy its delicious cuisine, blue flag beaches and unique landscapes, and I hope that Cypriots, in turn, will have the chance to visit Saudi Arabia to discover a completely new world, where heritage and modernization exist in harmony.

(This interview first appeared in the February edition of GOLD magazine. Click here to view it.)

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