Interview: Saudi Arabia has ‘important role’ to play in Africa, says EU envoy for Ethiopia

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Updated 06 April 2021

Interview: Saudi Arabia has ‘important role’ to play in Africa, says EU envoy for Ethiopia

  • Pekka Haavisto is visiting Saudi Arabia and UAE en route to Ethiopia on his second mission as EU envoy
  • Finnish diplomat says peace during Ramadan in Yemen was among the issues he discussed with Saudi officials

RIYADH: The EU’s envoy for Ethiopia has emphasized the importance of international cooperation to bring the conflict in the Tigray region to an end.

In a wide-ranging interview with Arab News in Riyadh on Sunday, Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s foreign minister, said it is important that the EU works with Saudi Arabia, given that the Kingdom has “good relations with all parties in the whole of Africa.”

Haavisto also described the latest Saudi proposal for peace in Yemen as “a very positive initiative,” and reiterated his condemnation of deliberate attacks by the Houthis on civilians in Yemen and in Saudi Arabia.

Mandated by the EU High Representative Josep Borrell, Haavisto is visiting the Kingdom and the UAE before traveling to Ethiopia on his second mission as the EU envoy.

“International cooperation in this issue is very important,” he said, citing the risks of another conflict in a region where disputes are already rife, including the Sudan-Ethiopia tensions and disagreements among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

“The European Union reacted very early on the confrontation in Ethiopia in Tigray and condemned the use of violence,” he said. “It was of course very concerned about the new wave of refugees partly coming to the Sudanese side.”

Haavisto visited refugee camps on the Sudan side in early February, in addition to holding meetings with Ethiopian leaders in December and February. At the time it was not certain that Eritrean troops were involved in the events of Tigray or that militias were causing turmoil.

“We have asked the Ethiopian leaders for full humanitarian access to all regions in Tigray, full investigation into human rights violations, dialogue between the parties and a halt to hostilities,” he told Arab News.

“This has been our message also to the neighboring country, Eritrea. We have asked for Eritrean troops to be withdrawn from Tigray.”

According to Haavisto, during their meetings the EU team and Saudi officials compared notes on the situation in the wider region and agreed to keep exchanging views on developments as well as explore future possibilities for closer cooperation.

The EU team also held meetings with officials from Saudi humanitarian agencies, he said. “It is very important that we also have a positive view of the whole of Africa, for the development and assessing of those in need of humanitarian aid,” he said. “We touched on the situation in Somalia, which is also the burning issue as far as African matters are concerned.”

Haavisto sees plenty of possibilities for the Kingdom and the EU to work together. “We have of course been praising the important role of Saudi Arabia earlier on in the peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia and also Saudi Arabia’s constant support to Sudan during its transition process. Saudi Arabia is a country that has good relations with all parties in the whole of Africa, so it’s important that the EU works with Saudi Arabia.”

The discussions in Riyadh explored the possibility of a period of calm in Yemen during Ramadan. Emphasizing that the holy month, only two weeks away, might see more negotiations for peace, Haavisto said: “The Saudi leadership mentioned many times how important it is to have peace in the coming month of Ramadan, and I think everybody is requesting that.

“I think it should be a united common message from the international community to also bring Houthis to the negotiation tables. We shouldn’t accept additional violence, and particularly people should think about the civilians and the fate of the civilians in Yemen.”

On March 7, more than 40 Ethiopian migrants burned to death in a Houthi-run detention center in Yemen. Commenting on the atrocity, Haavisto said: “We have condemned all of the attacks from the Houthis against (Yemeni) civilians and innocent civilians in Saudi Arabia, as well as the spreading of the war to other areas. It is totally unacceptable.

“We are supporting the US envoy Martin Griffiths’ work and his proposal on this issue. We have also noted the very positive initiative from the Saudi Arabia government on (reaching) a peace agreement.

“This is a moment when we should really ask all sides to refrain from any additional violence or any additional bombings, to come to the table to find a negotiated solution. I think this is a war that has been continuing for too long a time.”

On the topic of EU-Saudi relations, Haaavisto said: “First of all, it’s important to mention that the EU, I think, is the second biggest trading partner of Saudi Arabia. So, we have a lot of things in common in the private sector, a lot of common interests to be developed there.

Finnish diplomat Pekka Haavisto is visiting Saudi Arabia and the UAE before traveling to Ethiopia on his second mission as the EU envoy. (Supplied)

“We have been following very closely the (Saudi) Vision 2030 (plan), the reform of Saudi society — particularly regarding the role of women — the issues of human rights, the issues of the reform of labor laws, and so forth, which are positive steps toward the future.”

“We look for more close cooperation on regional issues. We are fully aware of the good initiatives of Saudi Arabia, such as the Red Sea Council, for cooperation on issues concerning the Red Sea. We also took very positive note of the new ‘green’ initiatives of Saudi Arabia.

“We at the European Union are preparing for the coming COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow and fulfilling the climate goals is very important. Also, new environmentally friendly technologies and energy products are something that interest both the EU and Saudi Arabia.”

He described relations between the EU and Saudi Arabia as “very good,” noting that Borrel intends to visit the Kingdom soon. “It is very important that we have these personal linkages between EU institutions and Saudi Arabia,” he said.

The global fight against the coronavirus was another topic addressed by Haavisto, who said it was not enough for individuals to be immunized if their neighbors were not.

“We sometimes use this kind of vaccine solidarity term, that it is not enough that you yourself are vaccinated,” he told Arab News. “You have to also get your neighbor vaccinated, the neighboring countries vaccinated and then finally the whole world vaccinated.”

Haavisto said that the world needs a common information campaign that drives home the importance of vaccination in fighting the pandemic. Additionally, the world cannot afford more new mutations of the coronavirus in countries where the public-health crisis is not under control.

“I have found a similar thinking here in Saudi Arabia that we should work on the conditions, because this is also an economic issue in some ways in the world currently — getting economies back to normalcy once the vaccination is working,” he said.

Explaining that mutations could only be halted once the world was fully vaccinated, he said that both the EU and Saudi Arabia could work together. “Field health diplomacy and health security are where Europe and Saudi Arabia can cooperate,” he said.

Talking about steps to mitigate the impacts of climate change, he said: “Water scarcity is a very, very important issue in this region. I remember several years ago, before the war in Yemen, I visited Sanaa and many people said the city might be one of the first capitals to totally run out of water in this region.

“I think already at that time people spoke about the need for new ways of saving water, and producing drinking water in environmentally friendly ways, using maybe solar and other technologies.”

Twitter: @NoorNugali


Film AlUla to boost Saudi film industry

Updated 10 April 2021

Film AlUla to boost Saudi film industry

  • New film commission will shine a light on Saudi Arabia by attracting international producers

DUBAI: A new regional film commission is launching in Saudi Arabia, Film AlUla, which is being set up by the Royal Commission for AlUla in the northwest region of the country.

Located 1,100 kilometers from Riyadh, AlUla is a place of natural beauty and heritage. It is home to Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra, which is a 52-hectare ancient city.

AlUla is also home to other historical and archaeological sites, including an old town surrounded by an ancient oasis and the Lihyan Kingdom, which is considered one of the most developed cities of the first millennium B.C. in the Arabian Peninsula.

Extreme E, the off-road electric race championship, will hold this year’s inaugural race in AlUla.

Arab News spoke to Stephen Strachan, film commissioner at Film Alula, to learn more.

Give us a little background on AlUla’s new film commission, Film AlUla. 

Film AlUla is a new regional film office, established in 2020 and launched officially earlier this year by the Royal Commission for AlUla at the Berlin International Film Festival. It was met with a positive reaction from both the film industry and international media.

Film AlUla has been tasked with the mission of promoting the county of AlUla as a filming destination and attracting local, regional and international productions to shoot films, TV series, commercials and documentary projects. The Film AlUla team is made up of local and international industry professionals who offer a range of services, expertise and resources to support production projects in AlUla. 

A view of an old town in ALUla surrounded by an ancient oasis. (Supplied)

What is Film AlUla’s objective? 

We have a range of objectives. Firstly, we want to attract production companies to shoot film projects in AlUla so as to showcase this county of outstanding natural beauty and cultural significance, which has, until recently, remained undiscovered by filmmakers and the world at large.  

This in turn will encourage tourists from around the world to visit AlUla, and to discover the region and the rest of the country, in support of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 vision. Developing our film industry also puts us in a position to shine a spotlight on the wealth of Saudi talent and to provide a platform to champion and support emerging and established creatives here.  

We aim to build a film hub centered in AlUla that generates local and regional employment and educational opportunities for those interested in pursuing a career in the film industry.  

What is the investment in the film and production industry in the city?

AlUla has been identified as one of Saudi Arabia’s most promising destinations. We are confident that the stunning landscapes, wide range of diverse locations and millennia-old archaeological sites will attract film productions and make AlUla a major filming destination. Preserving our heritage sites and landscapes remains a priority in AlUla and the sustainable building of our local screen industries.

A robust financial strategy is in place to make the AlUla region the Kingdom’s cultural capital. Archaeological, cultural and touristic complex plans are underway so we can support film productions with world-class infrastructure and a range of accommodation options, from luxury and unique hotels to eco-friendly, desert canyon resorts, designed to raise the profile of AlUla on the international stage.

What are the incentives being offered to producers?

Production companies are encouraged to get in touch with the Film AlUla team directly to discuss our financial incentives. 

Production companies can also benefit from a range of incentives such as free bespoke production support; location scouting; expert knowledge of filming in AlUla and the rest of Saudi Arabia; assistance in sourcing equipment and professional crew locally and regionally; and, of course, year-round sunshine.

With a temperate climate nine months of the year, AlUla presents filmmakers with an uninterrupted extended period of time during which to shoot their productions. 

What are the procedures and guidelines for local and foreign companies to shoot their productions in AlUla?

We are very excited to open AlUla’s doors to film production and share with the world the wealth of beauty, history, and diversity on display here. We welcome all types of production, and as a member of the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI), we follow best practices as laid out by the AFCI.  

We have a very effective regulatory system in place that is simple and straightforward to ensure production and crew have all the necessary permits in place. Hosted on our website is a Film Production and Location guide that provides a comprehensive overview of all the benefits of choosing AlUla as your production destination. Of course, preserving and protecting our landscape and heritage remain paramount. And, for anyone interested in filming in AlUla, we suggest you reach out to us so we can support you during every step of the process and ensure a successful and enjoyable filming experience.

For more information, please visit

Can you comment on the Extreme E races being filmed in AlUla?

We are thrilled to be the first location featured in the inaugural Extreme E five-stop global race next month, designed to highlight the impact of climate change and promote switching to electric vehicles to protect the planet.  

AlUla will make for an extraordinary and thrilling backdrop for the event. And with Extreme E set to be aired around the world, this is the perfect opportunity to capture the attention of global audiences, enabling them to see the majestic, cinematic landscapes and breathtaking natural wonders of the region for themselves.

Who’s Who: Prince Waleed bin Nasser Al-Saud, founder and CEO of Mukatafa

Updated 10 April 2021

Who’s Who: Prince Waleed bin Nasser Al-Saud, founder and CEO of Mukatafa

Prince Waleed bin Nasser Al-Saud is the founder and CEO of Mukatafa.
Mukatafa is a Saudi firm that, according to its website, aims to “build an ecosystem of collaboration between the private and public sectors that empowers Saudi Arabia to grow as a prosperous nation with a sustainable future,” in line with the goals of Saudi Vision 2030.
Prince Waleed has previously served as CEO for a group of private business initiatives in the Kingdom, vice president of the People and Shared Services department at McDonald’s, Saudi Arabia, and vice president of marketing and business development at NAFA Enterprises, a Saudi holding company.
Prince Waleed is also a member of several business groups, including the Restaurant and Cafes Association (Qoot), the Grocery Store Association (Mo’an), and the Fashion, Jewelry and Beauty Association (ZY).
He sits on the supervisory committee of the Trade Franchise Center at the Small and Medium Enterprises General Authority and is on the board of directors at both Alfa Co. for Operation Services and Tamkeen Human Resources. Additionally, he is a member of the advisory committee for investment in the municipal sector and a member of the commercial committee in the Riyadh Chamber.
Prince Waleed holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing, graduating with honors from the University of Tampa in Florida, and a master’s degree in accounting, graduating with honors from King Saud University, Riyadh. He also holds certificates in advanced leadership, strategic management, project management, and human resource management programs.

Islamic Development Bank president receives Chinese envoy to Saudi Arabia

Updated 10 April 2021

Islamic Development Bank president receives Chinese envoy to Saudi Arabia

The president of the Islamic Development Bank, Bandar Hajjar, met in his office the Chinese ambassador to the Kingdom, Chen Wei Cheng, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Friday.
They discussed partnerships between China and the bank, in its member states, in a number of fields, including the transfer of knowledge and expertise, science, innovation, scholarships and laboratories.

Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah prepares for Ramadan amid pandemic

Updated 09 April 2021

Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah prepares for Ramadan amid pandemic

  • Three million bottles of Zamzam water will be distributed to worshipers and visitors during Ramadan
  • Each worshipper will be individually presented with dates and water for Iftar

MADINAH: The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Prophet’s Mosque is intensifying efforts to prepare the mosque ahead of the holy month of Ramadan in line with COVID-19 precautionary measures.
Only people who have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine or have recovered from the virus or have had one shot of a vaccine more than 14 days prior to visiting the mosque may visit or pray in the Rawdah, Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
The Rawdah lies between the Sacred Chamber (known as the Prophet’s house), and the Prophet’s Minbar (pulpit).
Each person’s vaccination status will need to be registered on Saudi Arabia’s COVID-19 app, Tawakkalna.
Three million bottles of Zamzam water will be distributed to worshipers and visitors during Ramadan which amounts to 100,000 bottles of water per day, the presidency said.
Each worshipper will be individually presented with dates and water for Iftar and social distancing is to be observed at all times.
Arranging and distributing sahoor meals in the mosque’s courtyards is prohibited, the presidency said.
Itikaf (staying in a mosque for a certain number of days whilst devoting oneself to worship) will be suspended for the second year running due to the pandemic.
Worshippers are also required to use the national parking app “Mawqif” to facilitate their exit from the mosque.
Ramadan 2021 is due to start on either Monday or Tuesday in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia calls on people to sight Ramadan crescent on Sunday evening

Updated 09 April 2021

Saudi Arabia calls on people to sight Ramadan crescent on Sunday evening

  • Ramadan 2021 is due to start on either Monday or Tuesday in the Kingdom

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court has called on people in the Kingdom to try and sight the crescent moon signalling the beginning of the month of Ramadan on Sunday evening.
Anyone who sights the crescent, either with the naked eye or with the help of binoculars, should inform the nearest court of the sighting, the court said.
The start of Ramadan is determined by the lunar calendar which, unlike the Gregorian calendar, follows a 29- or 30-day cycle determined by the cycle of the moon.
Ramadan 2021 is due to start on either Monday or Tuesday in the Kingdom.
Muslims anticipate the end of Shaaban, the month preceding Ramadan, by watching for the absence or presence of the crescent moon, which indicates the continuation of Shaaban or the beginning of Ramadan.