There’s a huge gap, both in understanding and distance, between Saudi Arabia and Georgia. But the largest economy in the Middle East, flush with oil money allocated to diversifying its industrial base, had no trouble gaining an audience with the state’s key decision-makers during a December forum in Atlanta

Both Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal greeted a delegation of 300 business and government leaders, which included the nation’s ministers of commerce, education and health. 

The forum was a homecoming for U.S. Ambassador James Smith, who grew up in Fayette County. Georgia’s hospitality was fitting for a people as warm and welcoming as the Saudis, and the event’s success in its second year (drawing 1,200-plus attendees) showed that the first one in Chicago in 2010 was “no fluke,” he said. 

GlobalAtlanta caught up with the former fighter pilot by email to discuss U.S.-Saudi Arabia cooperation on education, trade and military deals and how the kingdom is addressing women’s education and citizens’ demands for greater freedom of expression. 

GlobalAtlanta: In your view, what was the biggest contribution of the U.S.-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum in Atlanta to the relationship between the two countries? 

Mr. Smith: Commercial ties between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been the anchor of our overall bilateral relationship for more than half a century. I find myself spending much of my time as ambassador involved in some aspect of our business ties: in trade, investment, or promoting a more business-friendly environment.Many of our programs promote entrepreneurship or develop commercial law. Unlike most partners and allies who have trade and investment ties as strong and deep as ours, we’ve had no signature event bringing together the public and private stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic. There was clearly pent-up demand for such a forum. Prior to the first forum being held in Chicago in 2010, the organizers had expected no more than 300 or so participants, and were pleasantly surprised to have had close to four times that number register for the event. The Atlanta forum attracted similar numbers and confirmed that Chicago was no fluke. This will be an annual event.

GlobalAtlanta: As a Georgia native, what did it mean to you to see the country where you’re now serving so warmly welcomed in the state where you grew up?

Mr. Smith: First of all, it is always wonderful to come home, so for me it was special to be in the surroundings that were part of my upbringing. Second, it was an honor and pleasure to bring with me over 300 Saudis who are making such a difference in their own country. As I mentioned in my talk in Atlanta, Saudis are among the warmest, most generous people in the world; they were introduced to Southern hospitality in a wonderful way in December, and I have every reason to believe it will be the beginning of strong business relationships in the future. 

 GlobalAtlanta: During the forum, you mentioned that your mother, who taught one of the first integrated classrooms in Fayette County, would have been proud to see what the Saudis have accomplished in their education system. Though 60 percent of college graduates now are women, they are largely excluded from many fields traditionally dominated by men. What is being done to change this and how might cultural hurdles impede progress on this front?

Mr. Smith: In 1965, the female literacy rate in Saudi Arabia was near 5 percent. Watching women move from 5 percent literacy to a majority of the country’s college graduates is remarkable in itself. It did not happen overnight and it is impossible to deny the progress this represents.

Young Saudi women today are earning graduate degrees in fields ranging from computer science to medicine to law – and many of these women grew up in homes where their grandmothers – or even some of their mothers – did not receive an elementary-school education. These young women are pioneers and we hope they will be given the opportunity to fully contribute to the kingdom’s future development and growth.

GlobalAtlanta: The Saudi government is funding a huge scholarship program to help its students go abroad. With unemployment high at home and in light of the Arab Spring, how is the kingdom making sure there will be jobs for all these skilled workers when they return home?

Mr. Smith: The King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP) sends thousands of Saudi students to colleges and universities around the world – a majority to the United States. I’m very proud that the Saudis have recognized that there is no better higher education system than that of the U.S. This monumental effort is a critical step in Saudi Arabia’s journey toward creating a knowledge-based society that King Abdullah envisioned for the kingdom. It supports the overall idea that a quality education can drive economic opportunities and societal benefits.

As a nation fighting unemployment at home, the United States understands how difficult this issue can be for a nation. Creating an appropriately skilled work force is actually part of the solution to the job crunch. As the Saudi government is making massive education investments, they are also looking to their private sector as a key engine of economic growth and stability. The Saudi private sector and public institutions are creating opportunities for this new generation of Saudi scholars. We are witnessing the first fruits of this initiative. The initial wave of KASP students has returned to Saudi Arabia and is entering the Saudi society and economy. The Saudis have recognized for some time that they face an enormous challenge with a youth bulge that will bring millions of people into the job market in the coming years, and this will create social as well as economic pressures. This investment in education will pay dividends to Saudi society for generations to come.

The Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) created the ambitious “10X10” (10 by 10) initiative, which aimed to move the kingdom into the top 10 investment destinations in the world by 2010, as measured by the World Bank’s annual “Ease of Doing Business” survey. The results were impressive: while not quite making the top ten, Saudi Arabia rose from 67th place on the Survey to 11th in 2010. By any measure, Saudi Arabia is now a much more attractive place to invest.

The Saudi government is also determined to use its economic advantages – chiefly its vast oil and mineral wealth – to diversify industry in the kingdom. They recognize that by exporting value-added petroleum-based products, rather than the crude itself, they can both increase income and create jobs. In just one case, in 2011 Dow Chemical and Saudi Aramco agreed to create a $20 billion joint venture in the Eastern Province to do just this. Third, the Saudis are identifying ways to build up their technical, skilled work and semi-skilled workforces through vocational and technical training. Finally, they are allocating huge amounts of their oil-generated wealth to create a world-class transportation and communications infrastructure, healthcare services, educational institutions and “economic cities” that will serve as magnets for investment and jobs.

Read more: Saudi Education Reforms Highlighted 

GlobalAtlanta: The U.S. Air Force has announced a nearly $30 billion sale of F-15SA aircraft to the Royal Saudi Air Force. The contract is creating 85 jobs at Robins Air Force Base in your home state of Georgia. What are the immediate reasons for the Saudis beefing up their air combat capabilities and why is supporting the kingdom’s military buildup so key for U.S. defense interests in the region?

Mr. Smith: The agreement to sell the package of F-15SA new and upgraded aircraft, extremely sophisticated and capable aircraft, reinforces a strong and enduring relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, it furthers a vital U.S. national security interest: defense of Saudi Arabia to improve regional security and stability in the Gulf region.

But we’re not just selling the Saudis aircraft: we’re creating a mechanism for our two countries and militaries to continue to work together, by virtue of undergoing the same training to fly and maintain the same aircraft. This means we’re ready to work together militarily in the field, should the need ever arise, what people call “interoperability.” We’ve had a training mission in Saudi Arabia for decades, and this sale continues that tradition in a way that supports U.S. industry and jobs in 44 of 50 states.

Read more: Saudi Aircraft Deal Creates Jobs in Georgia

GlobalAtlanta: You were a fighter pilot and flew combat missions in the region during Operation Desert Storm. What are the most challenging things about adapting to the flying conditions in the Middle East?

Mr. Smith: Desert Storm was different in that it was a 24-hour operation, so we had to quickly develop the capability to operate in continuous operations. While we take that for granted today, 20 years ago and through most of the Cold War, our training was of a more limited duration. None of us had employed continually at night, and that was a big change. In addition, we had to adjust to the rigors of desert operations, and the many sand storms created challenges with avionics on the aircraft.

GlobalAtlanta: Minister of Commerce and Industry Abdullah Alireza noted in his speech that stability is paramount for Saudi Arabia’s economic goals to be achieved. We know that the kingdom deployed troops to Bahrain to put down unrest during the Arab Spring uprisings. You have said that the Saudi government, though conservative, maintains dialogue with its people. How has that conversation changed in the aftermath of the democracy movement across the Middle East in 2011?

Mr. Smith: The Saudi government has repeatedly stated that governments must be responsive to the hopes and aspirations of their people. This principle of good governance is a key component of maintaining domestic stability. Keenly aware of its responsibility, the Saudi government is making progress in addressing economic sources of social discontent, such as housing scarcity, a low public-sector minimum wage and the lack of a private-sector unemployment benefit.

In order to be responsive to the hopes and aspirations of Saudis, the kingdom’s leadership and government, starting at the very top with King Abdullah, understand the need to maintain open channels of communication and engage in an ongoing dialogue with average citizens. Indeed, the government is established on the principle of consultation (shura), which requires the King and senior officials to make themselves available by holding meetings (majlis) where anyone may express an opinion or raise a grievance. With the growing popularity of social media, in recent years many government ministers and other senior officials have ventured into the world of the e-majlis: launching Facebook pages and opening Twitter accounts in order to be more accessible to ordinary Saudis and to maintain the tradition of consultation.

More GlobalAtlanta coverage of the U.S.-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum: 

Saudi Arabia No ‘Black Box’ for Foreign Firms

Commentary: Saudi Arabia Not Just for Multinationals

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...