Canadian Minister of International Trade Ed Fast believes that relations between his country and Saudi Arabia are not going to be clouded by their differences of opinion on some geopolitical issues.
“It is common for countries to have differences of opinion from time to time. Canada and Saudi Arabia are no different. With Saudi Arabia we have a very small number of disagreements on geopolitical issues. But we also have a common cause on many issues. The important thing is that we have so many more common interests that we can focus on to serve citizens of each of our country,” he said in an exclusive interview with Saudi Gazette.
Canadian stand on the Middle East issue, the recent visit of its Foreign Minister John Baird to East Jerusalem, its opposition to granting U.N. observer status to Palestine had ruffled feathers in the corridors of power in the Arab World.
But according to Fast these issues are not going to be stumbling blocks in the progress of ties with Saudi Arabia, which is Canada’s largest trade partner in the Arabian Peninsula.
“This is a troubled region; Canada recognizes that. But we are also encouraged by the fact that Saudi Arabia remains a stable country with which we have a very positive trade and investment relationship,” said Fast, who also serves as the Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway.
“There is a sincere desire on the part of our government to re-lift this relationship to a whole new level. We collaborate on security issues. We agree on a number of issues. We have good education relationship. So we look forward to continue doing that even in most difficult times,” said Fast, who is here on his second visit to the Kingdom in a year, and — as he says — he is “ very much looking forward to coming back.”
“I am very bullish on where the Canadian-Saudi Arabian relationship is going,” he said.
“The reason for our interest is that Saudi Arabia is one of our priority countries in this region. Our government’s focus has recently shifted to fastest growing dynamic economies in the world. Saudi Arabia happens to be one of those and it also happens to be a country with which we have good relations.”
But when asked why the Joint Economic Commission (JEC), which is almost lying dormant since 2005, has been put on the back burner, Minister Fast said that both Saudi Arabia and Canada have agreed not to move forward with the JEC.
“We are just now discussing when the JEC can meet. I believe JEC can become a useful tool in highlighting and also strengthening each of our economies so as to drive economic growth.”
“When I look at our education relationship, it is among the most robust in the world when you consider a country of 22-25 million people sending 16,000 students to Canada. Wow! That tells me that there is a genuine desire to develop a very productive and trusted economic partnership between Canada and Saudi Arabia,” he said, highlighting a major area of cross-culture link.
A Canadian commissioned committee has set the goal of doubling international enrollments in 10 years, but delays in visa processing have damaged Canada’s reputation as education destination.
Added to this is an ongoing strike by the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO), which has caused a backlog in processing visas so much so that the rate of visa approvals has dropped by 15 percent, and there has been a 5 percent decline in requests for visas, according to reports.
In response, Minister Fast says that his government is trying very hard to resolve visa issues. “We understand that there is some frustration. We have recently put more money into our budget to apply reducing wait time.
“We have opened three visa centers, one each in Dammam, Riyadh and Jeddah to expedite the process of getting visas. These are the centers where Saudis can go with documents. We review those to make sure that all documents are in place, everything has been filled correctly.
“We are trying to find new ways to ensure that when Saudis think of Canada they don’t only think that it is a spectacular place but also it is easy to get there,” he said, informing that from October Saudi Arabian Airlines will be operating a direct Riyadh-Toronto flight to boost connectivity.
Fast said that Canada is not only offering education, but making sure that Canadian education is adapted to Saudi culture and needs like a brand. “We are trying to develop a holistic approach to international education. Saudi Arabia is already one of our best partners in this regard.”
Another major area of cooperation, according to Fast, is the healthcare sector.
“We are already a leader in providing Saudis with medical training. Some 4,000 Canadian-trained doctors are now working here.”
The minister said that he met the chairman of the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) and the head of the Jeddah metro project. The meetings resulted in the identification of a number of areas of cooperation.
He said that one sector which is still in nascence is the mining sector. “We have been encouraged to promote Saudi Arabia as a great place for Canadian mining companies to seek out Saudi Arabia as a great place to invest and explore.”
“Our Saudi Arabian partners acknowledge that Canada has strong potential in infrastructure development. That is why Bombardier is studying to take on a very significant profile here on the ground.”
Bombardier Transportation has won a $383-million contract to help deliver technology for a transit system in Saudi Arabia.
“We expect many other projects where Bombardier expertise will be used when it comes to mass transit solutions. We believe that there is much scope for Bombardier to sell its products, for example the Q4 planes and CSeries jets.”
But how is he going to fight the stiff competition in various sectors in the high potential Saudi market?
“We are not trying to be all things for all people. We are going to focus on the sectors that Canada is clearly a world leader. I think Saudi Arabia has already noticed that Canada does certain things that are better than most others. That’s where we are going to compete.”
About the $5.33 million Chair for Dialogue among Civilizations, which Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah created in 2010, Minister Fast said that they are waiting for the program to be operational.
“We are very pleased with this investment. Canada is known around the world as a highly pluralistic country. Many faith groups, culture groups are living in high level of peace. We want to promote Canada as the most welcoming and tolerant country. It is a country in which this kind of dialogue center will really flourish.”