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Václav Klaus: notes from Saudi Arabia

Czech president Václav Klaus has wrapped up his visit of Saudi Arabia. TRF brings you his observations published at klaus.cz, as translated by your humble correspondent.



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Part I: January 17th

It's extraordinarily interesting to visit Saudi Arabia at the time when many Western European countries experience their frustration caused by the lost AAA rating. Even the European reactions were interesting: the Austrian prime minister (in synergy with the Austrian dailies) positively says: "We've got a homework to do"; the French prime minister, on the contrary, says: "A rating is just an opinion!". The German chancellor adds resolutely but unconvincingly: "We need the growth and innovations." I have to add that the communists have already relied upon innovations, too.




In the past, I have made two short visits to Saudi Arabia. One of them included an economic forum in Jeddah (on the coast of the Red Sea), the other was the funeral of King Fahd in Riyadh. The two most impressive experiences of the first visit were the hall in the luxurious congress center where I gave a speech: the hall was divided by opaque glass to the male and female parts of the audience (only the speaker could see both parts from the podium); and the chill in the excessively air-conditioned hotel room which had no buttons to control the air-conditioning.

A specific feature of the royal funeral was that only Muslims were allowed to join the funeral itself and dozens of top world's policiticians were waiting in empty halls of the royal palace for several hours. After a few hours they brought us some baguettes – probably from a nearby mall. After that, we were allowed to wait in a very long queue and to express our condolences to the future king. We had two spare hours before the departure so I wanted to see a café in Riyadh and drink their Arabic coffee. It was right before 6 pm, the temperature was 42 °C, and we received a coffee just when the evening prayer was getting started. We were sitting outside, all shops as well as cafés closed their doors, but they allowed us to sit and drink coffee. Clerks and employees were looking through the doors but no one was praying. I am curious what we will see today.

The flight was peaceful, except for some turbulence during one moment we spent above Greece, but it looked appropriate: it is a country going through turbulent events so why they shouldn't be 6 miles above the surface as well?

This time I am going to Saudi Arabia as the first speaker on a GCC Industrial Forum attended by "who is who" of the Arab world – from ministers of industries to bankers, from industrialists to journalists, in a hall with 1,000 people who will listen. The topic is the question how to modernize the Arab world's economy so I don't even know why they wanted me as the "keynote speaker" if I would be much more capable of explaining why Europe has lost its ability to be an effective and functional economy. Already in the aircraft we have to fill some entry forms and we are frightened by the terrifying and threatening sentence on a form: "smuggling of drugs is punished by immediate death." I am from a generation that has never touched any drugs but this sentence still sounds ominous.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. I sent my condolences in 2005 to the current King Abdullah when his predecessor died. The king is the highest representative of the executive and religious power; a somewhat shocking sentence says – if I quote the materials from our embassy – that "all other institutions of the state are advisory bodies." Moreover, the Parliament or "Consultative Assembly" is appointed. So far, it doesn't work in the same way in our corners of the world but the European Parliament is gradually converging to a consultative role.

In 2005 they had the first elections ever and they were only local elections. Only men could vote. There are no political parties in the country.

It is unbelievable – but it is something I already know well – how much time one spends above Saudi Arabia during a flight. The country's area exceeds 2.2 million square kilometers (I admit I can't say on the top of my head what is the area of Europe without Russia and Turkey!) which is about 70 Czech Republics. There are 28 million inhabitants over here, including about 1/3 of foreigners. Riyadh's population is over 5 million people. I was looking forward to a warm weather but even the weather isn't what it used to be. In Riyadh, the temperature was only 18 °C today and at night, the temperature is forecast to drop to 8 °C. They would need to add a bit of CO2 and to warm the Earth. It seems that a small amount would be sufficient – at least this is what our global warming prophets are telling us.

Václav Klaus, Právo, January 17th, 2012



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Part II: January 18th

Yesterday, I didn't have time to write that immediately after our arrival, we attended a meeting with our compatriots living in Riyadh which was organized by our embassy. They're no emigrants but rather people who are working and earning money in Saudi Arabia – businessmen, bankers, doctors, nurses. I didn't expect their number to be this high. I have gone through many similar meetings in the world but this one was really different – by the structure of the participants. And a bit strange. They would like to see better conditions when they return and the Czech Republic should take care of it. They primarily want the same salaries as in Saudi Arabia. ;-)



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Tuesday is dedicated to a conference which is the reason of my visit here. In the huge congress center, just like expected, only 1 person it 10 wears a European outfit. The theme is how to proceed with further industrialization of the Arab world. They are trying to diversify their economies away from the exclusive dependence on oil industry. They believe that the future lies in the "knowledge economy", something I tried to explain to them not to be the case (see other texts at www.klaus.cz). Oil is still providing them with the money to pay for huge state-funded projects. Thank God that our homeland doesn't have these resources: we would live in a country flooded with empty industrial zones and with "centers of excellence".



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I've had an interesting and very factual discussion with the Saudi finance minister whom I have known from the early 1990s. It seems that he understands the current European problems well. I was trying to convince him that our two countries should sign a treaty against double taxation.

The weather got sensible and after the chilly day yesterday, we have balmy 24 °C. The transportation through the city is difficult even with the police escort: the streets are crowded with cars. A reason is that this huge city has no public transportation – and the main reason behind this fact is that they haven't invented a method that would allow men and women to share streetcars, buses, and subway trains. Segregation at public places remains very strong. In the mall, you won't find any female clerks because they would have to come in contact with men. Female clerks may only be found in special parts of the shops. Women can't drive cars, either.



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You won't find almost any older house in the city. 100 years ago, about 10,000 people lived here; the number jumped to over 5 million today. To see photographs of Riyadh of the 1950s in the museum is as exciting as to see some ancient history. One of our diplomats says that while we count history in centuries, they count it in decades. This is reflected by Riyadh's architecture, too. We live in an unbelievably extensive and luxurious hotel Ritz-Carlton which was completed recently but it is far from fully occupied.



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Five times a day, the local life is interrupted by a prayer when everything stops but it doesn't look like everyone is praying. During the last prayer we visited the largest mosque where the highest religious representative of Saudi Arabia arrived (and greeted us). Abd al-'Aziz al-Ashaikh, the grand mufti, is a counterpart of the Czech cardinal or archbishop of Prague. The mosque is next to the headquarters of the powerful religious police and near the square where public executions take place. Next to the square, children are skating on rollerblades. All these things are a bit strange.

I will leave some comments about the Saudi economy for tomorrow.

Václav Klaus, Právo, January 18th, 2012



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Part III: January 19th

On Tuesday evening we went outside the city, to a "farm" of prince Meshari, the oldest grandson of the founder of the Al Saud dynasty. It was a green island in the middle of the desert with hundreds or thousands of palms, fruit trees, vegetable, sheep, cows, and especially with a dinner composed of marvelous Arab dainties served in a modernized tent where CNN was running throughout the whole night, however. I was joined by folks from the Czech gas company Plynostav Pardubice who are trying to penetrate to the Saudi oil industry and the son of Prince Meshari – Prince Turki – is a co-owner of the company Plynostav Arabian Ltd. (Plynostav is a Czech word, a composite meaning Gas-Construction; Pardubice is a town in Eastern Bohemia.)

An interesting debate began after my question what is the current main problem of the country. The answer was clear – they think it's the social conflict between the liberals and conservatives. There has to be a shift, all four princes around me agree. However, it shouldn't be mindless Westernization which is an assault on the human dignity because this is what the Saudi society doesn't want to accept. That's why the progress has to be cautious because the traditions have to be respected. The current government is trying to soften this problem by a very generous welfare system.



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The newspapers are rather accurately reporting what I said in my talk yesterday and right on the second page, you find a cute picture: a blue wagon powered by a red locomotive marked by the word China. However, the train has the Euro symbols instead of the wheels, so it doesn't move too smoothly or quickly. Along the train, you find freely floating letters A (like in AAA). I always believe in the power of caricatures; this one is marvelous.



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In the same newspapers, Arab News, there is an article called "Green Flag – Green Country" with information about the establishing of the Saudi Environmental Society. The Saudi flag is really green but the country itself is closer to yellow. We are going behind the city borders to see the beginning of the desert which is hopelessly non-green but a hundreds of kilometers long fracture (which is as tall as 200 meters) could offer an excellent scenery for potential Arab western movies.

It's always pleasant to eat here. Prince Meshari is telling me that we in Europe have an advantage because one may always notice an extra kilogram of body weight when one tries to button the suit up while their outfits don't register even 20 additional pounds. That's right: we're lucky to have the suits in Europe but it's increasingly difficult to button them up.



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The Czech-Saudi economic relationships are not too extensive but they are growing: 20 years ago, our trade was worth 25 million dollars annually, today it is 10 times as much. Our exports exceed our imports by a factor of 20: we don't import oil from this place. Oil represents one-half of the whole Saudi economy and Saudi Arabia is the world's second country in the oil production after Russia. The oil revenues amount to 90% of the revenues of the state budget and that's why they managed to end up with a 14% surplus last year. That would be a dream of the European finance ministers.

Saudi Arabia is observing the developments of the world around it rather anxiously. It has grown unsettled especially by the events in Iran, it considers the exit of the U.S. troops from Iraq to be disputable, and it is afraid of the growing influence of Iran on the politics of Iraq. It also hints that Assad's regime in Syria has lost all legitimacy and a regime change should take place. The debate about this issue is open.

We are completing our journey by another dinner, mostly with the world of business but also with politicians. At night, we fly to Frankfurt and in the morning to Prague.

Václav Klaus, Právo, January 19th, 2012



See also: Klaus: EU membership has little or negative value for Czechia; Klaus expects BRIC and rational oil producing countries to lead growth in the near future.



Bonus

We admire President Klaus but democracy is different and this blog is independent so let me add a music video that really, but really hasn't been approved by the Prague Castle. ;-) It's the Czech version of "Live Is Life [Opus]" by the Heavy Pokondr Band.



The Czech title is "Prejs to čmajz" ("They say you pinched it").

Lyrics (EN)

0:00 [Narration, female host]: One minute was enough and he became a global superstar of the first magnitude. Although not of the type he was imagining.
0:04 [Chilean president speaks in Spanish]
0:18 [Narration, female host]: And during his journey through Latin America, President Václav Klaus also visited Chile where he fell in love with, among other things, a protocol pen.

[Pictures from TVs reporting on the story.]

0:48 Nah nah nah nah nah [2x]
0:55 Václav, what are you doing!?
0:59 Nah nah nah nah nah [2x] vrrrr
1:08 Pinched! Nah nah nah nah nah
1:12 I hear you pinched it. Nah 5x.
1:18 Václav, I hear you pinched it. Nah 5x
1:22 Yup, pinched. Nah 5x

1:28 Everyone knows he's a demon, Václav is the best
1:34 A pretty pen without the case may have confused his head
1:39 This boy is so savvy, Václav is the best
1:44 When an economist attends a briefing, he's immediately thinking... what he could snaffle

1:52 He pinched a pen. Nah 5x
1:56 I hear you pinched it. Nah 5x
2:02 [Skillfully] pinched. Nah 5x
2:07 Václav, I hear you pinched it. Nah 5x

2:12 I hear you pinched it in the center of Chile with no problems
2:18 So you pinched it. In good mood, while sitting, it has an elegance.
2:23 Skillfully pinched. You had a free minute so you swiped it.
2:28 They say you pinched it. In a short minute, whatever.

2:33 Everyone knows he's a demon, Václav is the best
2:39 A pretty pen without the case may have confused his head
2:44 This boy is so savvy, Václav is the best
2:49 When an economist attends a briefing, he's immediately thinking... what he could snaffle

Chorus:
2:58 They say you pinched it. Nah 5x
3:02 They say you pinched it. Nah 5x
3:09 Václav, they say you pinched it. Nah 5x
3:13 They say you pinched it. Nah 5x

[Jay Leno's comments]

Chorus

3:59 In Czechia, every wretch is stealing
4:02 It is one of the ways
4:05 We read about it almost every day, that could confuse his head
4:10 The resulting affair was big, Václav earned arrears
4:15 When an economist attends a briefing, he's immediately thinking... what he could snaffle.

You've pinched it!

4:20 Klaus: Yup, yup, come on, come on. This is no laughing matter! ;-)

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