By H. Delano Roosevelt
It was near the end of World War II when my grandfather, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sat down with Saudi Arabia’s first leader, King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, to lay the foundation of an enduring economic, strategic and cultural alliance between our two nations. This meeting, which took place on Feb. 14, 1945, in the Suez Canal, was instrumental in creating the bonds between the United States and Saudi Arabia that have persisted through the end of the 20th century to today.
Fate has given me the opportunity to continue the legacy of “Peace through Commerce,” set by my grandfather, of strengthening trade ties and creating personal bridges of friendship between our business communities. As president and CEO of the U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council, I and my council team work with U.S. companies across the country to help grow their export capabilities in Saudi Arabia and establish partnerships with Saudi businesses.
I had the pleasure of speaking recently on Maine radio with Matthew Gagnon of Newsradio WGAN and discussed the potential for Maine companies in Saudi Arabia. I noted that in 2008 Maine exported about $160 million worth of goods to the Kingdom, yet in 2019 that figure had shrunk to only $2 million. I believe that now more than at any time in recent history, Maine can see those numbers rise again as opportunities abound for U.S. companies in the Saudi market.
Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an expansive cultural and business transformation. Under the umbrella of the country’s ambitious Vision 2030 national development plan, Saudi Arabia is looking to diversify its industrial base away from its traditional heavy dependence on oil and gas and open up formerly restricted sectors like entertainment, sports and culture. All of these changes are creating opportunities for U.S. companies to provide products and services to respond to increased demand across a broad range of sectors.
Take Maine’s world-famous lobsters, for example. In 2019, the nonprofit Food Export USA-Northeast organized a trade mission to Dubai in the UAE for some of Maine’s top lobster companies. According to reports, the mission generated $1.8 million from buyers across the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia. Total U.S. food exports to the Kingdom have grown 85 percent in the past 10 years to $1.3 billion. Most U.S. food franchises are thriving in Saudi Arabia and U.S.-branded products are prominent in Saudi grocery stores. The Kingdom is the largest economy in the MENA region and the 19th largest economy in the world. Sixty percent of the population is under 40 years of age and many are well-traveled internationally and relish international flavors.
It is not just food products where opportunity exists. Other leading Maine export categories such as aviation, electronics and laboratory equipment find a large import market in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Maine’s fast-growing sectors in biotech, pharmaceuticals, IT, advanced manufacturing and marine technology are among the industries targeted for development in Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia is looking for products and services to feed the growth of these new industries as well as for partners for research and development and joint ventures.
Still another not to be overlooked export is education. Saudi Arabia ranks fourth among foreign countries that send students to the United States for undergraduate and advanced degrees. Over the last decade, more than 250,000 Saudi citizens and their families have received visas to study in the United States and experience life in small American towns and cities similar to Portland, Bangor and Ellsworth. In New England, Saudis make up the fifth largest group of international students; at the University of Maine, Saudi students comprised 7 percent of the international student body.
The interpersonal relationships that are a byproduct of the educational experience of Saudi students in the United States and the many U.S.-Saudi business partnerships that have flourished over the years are a natural extension of the trust-built relationship started by our two countries’ leaders 75 years ago. It is these bridges of friendship that have helped our mutual alliance to continue through good times and bad. I am confident these relationships will continue to grow even stronger through the 21st century and will be led by increased commercial ties. The simple concept of Peace through Commerce envisioned by my grandfather is as relevant today as it was in 1945.
Hall Delano Roosevelt is the president and chief executive officer of the U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council, a membership-based organization that has worked with thousands of U.S. and Saudi companies to increase cross-border trade and investment. He is the grandson of President Franklin Delano and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.