Over the past decade, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Austria has grown stronger, attaining the level of a strong partnership and incorporating more political and economic content. Several exchanges of the visit of top Saudi and Austrian officials have further bolstered the bilateral relationship, laying the basis for deepening existing ties and broadening the parameters of cooperation between the two countries. In fact, the active exchange of visits between the Republic of Austria and Saudi Arabia is a testament to the close relations between both countries. Among the highlights figures the state visit of Austrian President Heinz Fischer in Saudi Arabia in 2006, as well as the visit of Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz (later King) to Austria in 2004. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz visited Riyadh in 2015, while President of the Austrian Parliament (II), Karlheinz Kopf, also visited Riyadh in 2015 to offer condolences to King Salman bin Abdulaziz, on the sad demise of late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.
On the commercial front, Saudi Arabia traditionally is Austria’s main export destination and trading partner in the Middle East. Moreover, Austrian companies active in Saudi Arabia have gained a reputation for specializing in certain fields in the Saudi market. These particularly comprise important areas like water transport and desalination, transport, railway technology, infrastructure, renewable energy, environmental technology, water and desalination technology; medical technology; hospital equipment; food products. Notably in light of the recent political and economic developments within the comprehensive reform agenda “Saudi Vision 2030”, the Saudi market offers many new opportunities to Austrian companies. Austria is working closely with Saudi Arabia within this framework.
On the other hand, intense cultural exchange between Austria and Saudi Arabia is another important aspect of bilateral relations. In a wide-ranging interview, Georg Postinger, Austrian Ambassador to the Kingdom, spoke to Ghazanfar Ali Khan at length and touched a range of bilateral, regional and international issues of common concerns. Here are the excerpts of the interview–
Ghazanfar Ali Khan: Saudi Arabia shares an excellent history of relations with Austria, and both sides have seen many high-level visits during the past. How do you personally evaluate relations between the Kingdom and Austria in political, economic and cultural fields?
Ambassador Georg Postinger: Lately, we commemorated 60 years of bilateral relations. Hence, our history is indeed extremely rich and the relationship a solid foundation. Now, as you probably know, I served for nearly six years as Deputy Ambassador to the Kingdom and left in 2014. When I returned as an Ambassador in early 2019 I found an entirely changed Saudi Arabia. The Vision 2030 opens up a multitude of opportunities and perspectives. We are observing a new Saudi Arabia that moves ahead fast, where promising reforms are reshaping society and the economy. Within a short period of time, numerous changes have become a new reality in this country and Austria stands ready to accompany the Kingdom in her endeavors. The solid foundation of our bilateral relations I mentioned allows us to foster even closer political, economic and cultural ties.
GAK: Please provide an overview of Austrian-Saudi trade and investment relations, their volume and features. Please provide comments on how they have evolved over the years.
Amb Postinger: Saudi Arabia traditionally is Austria’s main export destination and trading partner in the Middle East. The bilateral trade volume reached 1,17 billion euros an all-time high in 2014. Since then the bilateral external trade has declined a bit due to the double impact of less economic growth and fiscal consolidation in the Gulf region and Saudi Arabia. I’m confident that we will harness the full potential of our trade relationship again as the economic forecasts for 2020 and 2021 are looking up and many promising projects are in the making in the Kingdom.
Austria’s most important export goods to Saudi Arabia in 2018 were pharmaceutical products, followed by steel products, vehicles, electrical machines and appliances, products for the oil industry and beverages. We imported primarily oil, oil products, and related commodities, as well as plastics in primary forms and metal products from Saudi Arabia.
GAK: How many Austrian 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 Postinger. Of the around 20 Austrian companies, which have set up offices in Saudi Arabia, the biggest are active in fields like engineering, railway and transport technologies, renewable energy, desalination or vehicle assembly where Rosenbauer Vehicles springs to mind. In some cases these companies are involved in project management as consulting engineers, for example, ILF Engineers had a leading role in the design of the Riyadh water supply system. Austrian corporations like Siemens Austria have supplied the trains for some lines of Riyadh Metro, but also rails and switches. Austria boasts not that much of big names like Red Bull, but rather of hidden champions that are highly respected leaders in their respective niche markets.
GAK: Is there any plan for a Saudi official or delegation to visit Austria or vice-versa in the near future?
Amb Postinger. We have proposed to our Saudi friends holding the eighth meeting of the Saudi-Austrian Joint Economic Committee in spring 2020 in Riyadh. The meeting presents an excellent opportunity to firstly review how much progress has been made on the projects both countries committed to in the framework of the last Joint Economic Committee and secondly how we can bring more dynamism into our economic cooperation.
Moreover, the meeting will allow us to discuss in-depth tailor-made Austrian contributions to the achievement of the ambitious goals and projects of Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030″.
GAK: Austrian Company Rosenbauer has set up a factory in King Abdullah City? What is the status of its operation? Is it manufacturing fire-fighting trucks for Saudi Arabia and its government agencies? Please share some information.
Amb Postinger. The factory of Rosenbauer Saudi Arabia in King Abdullah Economic City is a state of the art production plant for firefighting trucks as well as special trucks including ambulance vehicles. After the official factory opening in the year 2016, the first trucks were assembled for both local and other GCC markets. The main customers for locally produced vehicles are government agencies but also private customers taking advantage of getting locally produced high-quality trucks. All Rosenbauer trucks are supported by the Saudi wide Service network with service workshops and mobile workshops all over the Kingdom.
Actually, Rosenbauer is working on the next step in deepening the local production in the KAEC factory by adding the welding of polypropylene water tanks in the production line.
Rosenbauer is actually employing more than 110 Saudi and non-Saudi specialists in the Kingdom to meet the daily needs of the customers.
GAK: Austria has a lot to offer to tourists. What is the status of tourism relations? How many Saudis visited Austria in 2017, 2018 and during the first half of 2019?
Amb Postinger. I think it is really safe to say that outstanding natural beauty, a rich cultural heritage including a wonderful culinary tradition, as well as long-standing experience in hospitality management attracts guests from all over the world to my country. Although Saudi visitors have a penchant for trips to Vienna and Salzburg region, we are sure that they soon will start to explore other interesting regions of Austria.
According to our National Tourism Office, 119,000 tourists from Saudi Arabia visited Austria in 2018 which meant an increase of 10% compared to 2017 (108,000 visitors) and translated into 390,100 overnight stays. Record numbers were registered for the first semester of 2019 which indicates that Saudis nationals are on the way of becoming the most important group from the Gulf region in terms of visitor numbers.
GAK: Austria has its own 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 of cooperation in these areas between the two countries? Your comments please.
Amb Postinger. The Austrian Embassy in Riyadh has always organized cultural and scientific events on its premises but now in view of the remarkable cultural changes in Saudi Arabia we stand ready to bring our artists to the Kingdom and participate in the numerous new festivals. At the same time, we would be happy to assist Saudi Arabia in building up structures that are needed to provide appropriate training for Saudi artists and cultural managers. In addition, we envisage establishing cooperation ties in the cultural heritage sector where we could offer plenty of know-how and consultancy in areas like specialized craftsmanship or preservation techniques. In regard to the bilateral scientific exchange, we hope to launch exchange programs for students and university lecturers in the near future.
GAK: Austria is one of the 14 richest countries of the world in terms of GDP per capita? As of 2019, what is the state of the Austrian economy?
Amb Postinger. Yes, that is true, according to the IMF Austria had a GDP per capita of more than 51,000 USD in 2018. The Austrian economy has fortunately proved to be quite resilient during the Great Recession from 2008 on and favorable macroeconomic indicators like low unemployment and inflation have contributed to the positive development of our economy. I consider the very geographical location in the heart of Europe, our good transport infrastructure and our well-trained workforce have major comparative advantages for foreign investors. Needless to say like any other Western European country we are faced with challenges as to how to adapt our social security systems to the needs of an aging population and how to tackle climate change in an economically viable manner.
GAK: What is Austria’s position on key regional issues including the conflict in Yemen, the Syrian crisis, Iranian intransigence, and ME Peace Process?
Amb Postinger. Austria together with her partners in the European Union supports any effort that will bring lasting peace to Syria and Yemen and end the protracted suffering of the civilian populations. As a neutral country, we are proud of our tradition to build bridges and facilitate dialogue between the parties to various conflicts. We feel that there is no alternative to dialogue in the Gulf region to ease up the existing tension and hope that the agreement known as JCPOA with Iran will be implemented. As far as the Middle East Peace Process is concerned, Austria remains committed to a two-state solution as the best way to resolve a conflict that has lasted far too long.
GAK: What are the major priorities of the Austrian Embassy in Saudi Arabia under your leadership? What has been the biggest challenge?
Amb Postinger. While we are striving to improve and deepen existing frameworks of cooperation, we are constantly sounding out new areas where we would like to bring together the relevant Saudi and Austrian actors in order to accompany the opening up of the Kingdom. The reforms in Saudi Arabia have been happening at a breath-taking pace, so the challenge is sometimes to overcome outdated ideas about Saudi Arabia.
GAK: One of the institutions named the Austro-Arab Chamber of Commerce (AACC) is specialized in providing services, network and information to business people, companies and institutions in Austria and the Arab countries. Is the AACC still active or dormant? Is AACC organizing any event or networking session in the near future.
Amb Postinger. The Austro-Arab Chamber of Commerce (AACC) is very active and last week celebrated their 30 years anniversary under the presence of H.E. the Austrian Federal President, the Honorary President of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, dignitaries of the Arab countries and representatives of the Austrian and Arab business community.
The Austrian Federal Economic Chamber and the AACC cooperate closely and organize economic forums of various topics that are related to all members of the Arab League.
GAK: Tell us briefly about your experience of living and working in Saudi Arabia?
Amb Postinger. It is an honor and a privilege for me to be the Austrian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Since I came here for the first time ten years ago as an Austrian Deputy Ambassador I was able to build up a large network of close Saudi friends who, over the years, helped me to understand their country and their culture. To tell you the truth, ever since I joined the Austrian Foreign Service I always was eager to get the chance to serve in Saudi Arabia as for a diplomat the Kingdom remains one of the most important and interesting postings. Moreover and from a personal view, the immense changes taking place in the country nowadays make my second assignment even more interesting.
During my years I have been traveling extensively all over Saudi Arabia, from the Northern Borders down to the South. There is a strong common denominator throughout the country: wonderful warmhearted people who welcome you with open arms. On the other hand, you become familiar with a country that is very diverse in its geography and extremely rich in history. In this context, I am proud to say that my country is in the lucky position to assist in exploring Saudi Arabia’s history. In Qurayya, an hour’s drive north from Tabuk, archaeologists from Austria excavate one of the Kingdom’s oldest heritage sites. Qurayya is a city that had the dimension of Babylon or Nineveh and goes much further back in time than the Nabataean settlements. It is a pleasure to see how Saudi Arabia and Austria work hand in hand in order to reconstruct the Kingdom’s heritage and history.
Last but not least I also should like to mention my friend, the Saudi Arabian Ambassador in Vienna, HRH Prince Abdullah bin Khalid bin Sultan Al-Saud. His engagement for the Saudi-Austrian relationship is priceless and both of us will do our utmost to boost our bilateral relations to new heights.