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Remarks at U.S.-Saudi Business Opportunites Forum, Los Angeles, California

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker
Remarks at U.S.-Saudi Business Opportunites Forum, Los Angeles, California

Ahlan Wa Sahlan.  Thank you, Omar Farid. And thanks for your leadership of a great American company doing business in the Gulf.

Minister al-Rabiah: Thank you for the warmth you have shown from Day One. In fact, it was before Day One. You all may not know this, but he sent me a letter inviting me to attend this conference even before I was confirmed to be Secretary. I appreciate the faith that you had in my nomination.

And I also want to recognize all of the other Highnesses and Excellencies here today, as well as leaders from here in the U.S., including Mayor Garcetti. I also want to thank Ambassador Smith for the excellent leadership you have shown–from your 28 years in the U.S. Air Force, to your work in the private sector, to just yesterday when you reached 4 years of service as Ambassador. And, of course, thanks to our hosts: the Saudi Committee for International Trade, the U.S.-Saudi Business Council, and the Saudi-U.S. Trade Group.

It is a pleasure to be among people who are building bridges between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the largest economy in the Middle East. In the past, I have traveled to Riyadh… to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology… and to the Saudi Aramco facility in Shaybuh. During that trip I made some great friendships, and I enjoyed the hospitality of the Saudi government, businesses, and people.

I’m thrilled to be here to build on the strong relationship that exists between President Obama and King Abdullah – dating back to June 2009 when both leaders visited each others’ countries.

The U.S.-Saudi diplomatic relationship has been tested many times, but it has endured for 80 years. The history of U.S. companies doing business in Saudi Arabia reaches back just as far. Oil firms from the U.S. began discovering oil there in the 1930s.  In the 1940s, General Electric began shipping products.  And many more companies made investments in the decades that followed.

Each day, more U.S. businesses of all sizes are recognizing that Saudi Arabia is a place where they can find partners and do business. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s ranking on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index has risen to and remained in the top 25 in recent years.

Today, the United States and Saudi Arabia are strategic partners and allies. And as the growth of this Forum reflects, our commercial relationship is blossoming – both in trade and investment. Last year, trade in both directions hit all-time record highs. It surpassed pre-recession levels for the first time. We are now more than triple our bilateral trade of just a decade ago.

If current trends continue, nearly $20 billion in U.S. merchandise will go to Saudi Arabia this year including cars, planes, machinery, medical instruments, and more. I know that many of the people in this room are helping to bring innovative U.S. products to business partners and consumers in Saudi Arabia.

I’m particularly pleased that many of you are working with our commercial service officers at places like the Los Angeles Export Assistance Center as well as those at our Embassy in Riyadh, and our consulates in Dhahran and Jeddah. These teams have helped businesses like CDM Smith in Massachusetts, which went on one of our trade missions. That firm landed $32 million in agreements to create water “master” plans for Jeddah and Riyadh. Another example is a Houston, Texas, company called Headworks Bio, which is now providing wastewater equipment and services to King Saud University. Altogether, over the past four years, we’ve helped over 450 companies export for the very first time to Saudi Arabia. Of those, about 400 were small and medium-sized businesses.

In addition, I’m pleased that our Advocacy Center is helping U.S. businesses compete for dozens of Saudi projects valued at billions of dollars – particularly in areas like defense, energy, and information technology.

Yet still, there is room for more growth in U.S. exports, and I believe we must pursue that goal in order to ensure greater balance in our commercial relationship.

In the coming years, we will have many opportunities to do just that. The Saudi population is growing quickly, with 28 percent of its population age 14 or younger. The Saudi economy is diversifying into fields like education, technology, and financial services. And the Saudi government is making transformative investments.

U.S. businesses stand ready to partner with Saudi Arabia at this exciting moment–as it moves to become a more knowledge-based economy. In particular, there are many pressing economic development and technological needs associated with Saudi Arabia’s plans for infrastructure growth. This is an area where the U.S. private sector can provide deep experience and expertise.

Already, some U.S. firms are contributing to the $200 billion in infrastructure projects that the Saudi government has committed over the past two years. Even more firms want to serve as partners in the next five years as Saudi Arabia spends $500 billion more. From rail transportation to water utilities to solar power U.S. companies can partner to help build strong and vibrant communities in Saudi Arabia.

In addition, as the population grows, Saudi Arabia will have greater needs in areas such as medical care. Saudi Arabia is already the region’s largest and most developed market for medical products and services. Again, this is an area where U.S. firms can continue to help meet demand. They can provide products that help our friends in Saudi Arabia live longer, fuller lives.

Overall, we want to help build the underlying conditions for growth in Saudi Arabia because when our trade partners become more innovative and dynamic, we uncover more opportunities to grow, partner, and innovate in tandem.

In addition, I believe that we can also do more to bolster bilateral investment – particularly Saudi investment into the United States. The value of U.S. investment in Saudi Arabia is growing as we come out of the recession. In fact it has doubled over the past five years – from $5 billion to $10 billion. I have spoken with Minister al-Rabiah, and we agree that there is opportunity for more investment in the other direction.

The fact is CEOs around the world are taking notice that U.S. energy prices have dropped, our labor-cost advantage is growing, and we continue to have world-class universities, strong R&D spending, and a broad and powerful consumer base. As more and more Saudi Arabian companies look outside their borders, I believe that a natural next place for their investment is here in the United States.

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to get all of the right people together in one place to answer questions about investment.

That’s why our SelectUSA program is organizing our first-ever Investment Summit in Washington on October 31st and November 1st. You will hear from top experts about why there has never been a better time to invest in the United States. You will hear from the CEOs of companies who have successfully expanded here. And we will provide opportunities for business leaders to network with economic development organizations from 44 U.S. states. I just announced last week that more than 60 countries will be represented, and I’m thrilled that this includes companies from Saudi Arabia.

This is truly an unprecedented opportunity. I don’t need to tell this crowd that sometimes there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Clearly, promoting bilateral investment is a win-win. My hope is that more Americans will have the opportunity to go to work at good jobs at Saudi-based firms operating here.

Are there additional areas where we need to make even more progress? The answer is yes. I’ll just briefly mention three.

First, we can build on the substantial progress that Saudi Arabia has made in intellectual property protection. As you know, it achieved the milestone of being removed from our 301 Watch List in 2010. It’s clear that Saudi Arabia is serious about this issue as it expands penalties for copyright violators, addresses internet piracy, hires more patent examiners, and trains more judges. I’m glad that the Commerce Department is providing continued support. My hope is that Saudi Arabia makes further progress by hiring even more staff and addressing areas such as government use of software.

Second, I mentioned earlier that U.S. firms can provide innovation and expertise in areas like infrastructure and energy. It’s important that we ensure a level playing field that allows American firms to fairly compete. For example, we want Saudi Arabia to achieve its ambitious solar power goals, and we want to make certain that US companies encounter a business environment that helps them partner with the Kingdom to get there. 

And third, I’ll just note that we continue to support Saudi Arabia’s accession to the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement.

Given our strong, dynamic, and fast-growing relationship… I am fully confident that we can find a path forward to resolve concerns from both sides.

Furthermore, I believe that the personal ties between business and government leaders will continue to strengthen, as they have in recent years with numerous trips and trade missions from the leaders of the Commerce Department.

In 2010, we led two trade missions to Saudi Arabia – in public health, and infrastructure and energy. In 2011, two more top Commerce Department officials visited Saudi Arabia to promote bilateral trade. In 2012, we led another trade mission in the area of clean energy and energy efficiency. And, in just 11 days, another trade mission on cybersecurity and critical infrastructure will head out.

There has not been a Secretarial visit since 2006.  And while we have not confirmed any details, I’m pleased to say that I have asked my staff to prioritize a possible trade mission for me to Saudi Arabia next year.

In closing, let me just return to an observation I made at the beginning of my remarks. It’s important to remember that our commercial and economic relationship has been in existence since almost the beginning of U.S.-Saudi diplomatic relations.

In other words, business leaders have played a crucial role in establishing and maintaining strong overall ties between our nations over the course of nearly a century. Today, let’s re-commit ourselves to build on that legacy.

If we’re successful, we will ensure greater prosperity for the United States and Saudi Arabia for many generations to come. Thank you.