Economic diplomacy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

“An uneven number of dates and a cup of laban (sour milk) in the morning
— that is the traditional Bedouin idea of healthy living.”

Dr. Hans van der Beek, agricultural counselor in Riyadh

A sedentary lifestyle fueled by fast food prevails in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), which has made obesity and diabetes type 2 ever more prevalent among Saudis. A wide array of Dutch and Saudi companies and researchers would share solutions to such health issues. Therefore, the Netherlands Embassy in Riyadh hired me to moderate its Healthy Food & Healthy Living seminar at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

This seminar was announced in Arab News.


At first a screen in the aisle separated about one-third of the seminar room from the other chairs. At the request of a Dutch diplomat this screen was removed, which eased the intellectual interaction among male and female participants. This practical example illustrates how the strength of your network determines your influence. Saudis call this phenomenon ‘wasta’: who you know is as important as what you know.

Delegates shake hands with His Excellency Laurens Westhoff, the Ambassador of the Netherlands to Saudi Arabia.

Technological innovation for health

The Dutch diplomats in Saudi Arabia know how to build strong wastas. Our hospitable host at the Chamber of Commerce and one of the speakers was engineer Mohamed Alrasheed, who had built most greenhouses in Saudi Arabia. It takes quite an entrepreneurial spirit to produce tomatoes in the desert.

Furthermore, Philips would cater from its frying pan that fries snacks without frying fat. The day before the seminar I had already met a Saudi marketing manager of Philips Middle East who had been working in Eindhoven for half a year. There he learned that Philips’ main market in the coming decades will be health care rather than light bulbs. So Philips’ solutions accompany consumers in different phases of their lives: fat-free frying pans to prevent heart failure, and healthcare technology to cure it.

Chemical nutritionists of the Saudi Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) discussed the allocation of governmental responsibilities with the Ministry of Health.

Women speak up

Furthermore, the knowledge and eloquence of several women in our audience surprised me. Even though we did not get to see her facial expression, we did hear her voice loud and clear. This woman with razor-sharp argumentation turned out to be a scholar who holds a PhD on the topic. Surprise is reality minus expectations. So this experience has weakened some of my prejudices. The mere fact that someone veils her face does not necessarily imply that she veils her opinions.

We learn from each other if we’re willing to look beyond a woman’s traditional abaya (black dress) or a man’s thawb (white tunic).

The Saudi flow

As several Dutch diplomats advised me before the seminar: “go with the Saudi flow”. The virtues of patience and hospitality go hand in hand. Rather than scheduling five business meetings on one afternoon, Saudis leave room for one meeting to take more time than expected. After all, you may suddenly be invited for dinner to continue building your new relationship.

Back in the Netherlands I’ve loosened my control somewhat and I am curious where the flow will lead me. The control mode remains tempting, but spontaneity often triggers the most exciting ideas. Any meeting needs a basic structure from which the players can improvise, like a piece of jazz music. Altogether, I am grateful that these diplomats and businesspeople have given me this chance to conduct their concert.

Client testimonial

“The event on ‘Healthy Food & Healthy Living’, which was organised on May 21, 2015, in Riyadh by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was a great success. From Saudi side, we had several positive reactions. From my side, as one of the initiators, I would like to thank you very much for the positive role you played in this event as moderator. You were able to stimulate the public to participate in a lively way in the discussions. Short intros and summaries of the presentations added significantly to an excellently organized performance of the event. I believe that through it all, this event will be an example of a vivid and adequate way of dealing with present-day topics.”

Dr. Hans van der Beek, agricultural counselor
(the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Riyadh)

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