Frankly Speaking: How close are we to a ‘historic’ US-Saudi deal?

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Updated 03 June 2024
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Frankly Speaking: How close are we to a ‘historic’ US-Saudi deal?

  • US ambassador to Saudi Arabia says potential agreement has the ability to fundamentally change the landscape of the Middle East for the better
  • Michael Ratney lauds Kingdom’s “extraordinary transformation” from empowerment of women and economic diversification to space exploration

DUBAI: Michael Ratney, the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has said that a “historic” security deal currently under negotiation between the two countries has the potential to fundamentally change the landscape of the Middle East for the better.

Appearing on the Arab News current-affairs show “Frankly Speaking,” Ratney was optimistic the deal would both clarify and cement the decades-old relationship — based at present on verbal agreements — between Saudi Arabia and the US.

“We overuse that word ‘historic’ but it would be a historic agreement and it could fundamentally change the landscape in the Middle East for the better,” he said.
“Political cooperation, security cooperation, economic integration.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said the deal, which would see Saudi Arabia agreeing to normalize ties with Israel in exchange for closer US integration and recognition of a Palestinian state, could be just weeks away.

Despite the mutual enthusiasm for the deal, Ratney would not be drawn on the exact timeline for its conclusion, warning there were many moving parts, in particular the willingness of Israel to hold up its end of the bargain.

“I don’t think there’s anybody involved in these negotiations that wouldn’t like to have it finished tomorrow,” Ratney told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.”

“But since all of that is a part of this agreement and these are extraordinarily complex and detailed discussions, I don’t think I could put a timeline for it.

“There ar also other elements of it including a US Senate role and obviously the situation in Israel weighs on this as well.

“So as much as we would like to get this done tomorrow, we are going to proceed as quickly as we can, as seriously as we can. And we’re going to get this done as soon as all of the pieces fall into place.”




Appearing on the Arab News current-affairs show “Frankly Speaking,” Ratney was optimistic a Saudi-US deal would both clarify and cement the decades-old relationship. (AN Photo)

What makes the deal so significant is that it clearly sets out the parameters of the Saudi-US relationship and safeguards them against the political whims and particularities of future US administrations, lending the partnership a degree of certainty.

“That’s why it’s an agreement that would involve US Senate ratification,” said Ratney. “US Senate ratification means it is a formal agreement that doesn’t depend on a particular administration.

“It would be an enduring agreement not between an administration or a government but between two countries. And in that, that brings certainty. It brings certainty to us. It would bring certainty to the Saudis as well.”

Commentators have drawn parallels between the proposed Saudi-US deal and the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan, signed in 1960. Asked whether these assessments were accurate, Ratney said he could not go into specifics.

“I’m really reluctant to get into those sorts of details,” he said. “Those are exactly the kinds of things that are subject to negotiations at the highest level of our government and the highest level of the Saudi government.”

He did, however, say the deal would include upgrades to the security partnership and economic relations, while also taking steps toward meeting Saudi Arabia’s demand for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“Let’s just say this would be a historic agreement that would upgrade the security partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia. It would upgrade the economic relationship. It would bring Israel and Saudi Arabia essentially into the same region. And it would bring benefits and a path to statehood for the Palestinians.

“So, that’s a lot. It’s a complex set of discussions. And I’m really reluctant to get into the details of things, some of which are still yet to be negotiated.”

The success of the deal hinges to a significant degree on Israel’s cooperation. However, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which has two powerful far-right ministers, has been reluctant to give way on Palestinian statehood and end the war in Gaza.

Ratney, who previously served as a diplomat in Israel, said there was much to be gained for the region.




Michael Ratney, the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, met with Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas and other Arab News journalists during a visit to the headquarters of the newspaper in Riyadh on May 30. (AN Photo)

“I would say all the elements that we have discussed are of extraordinary value. The real value is taking it all together,” he said.

“All of those elements that have been under discussion, all of the US-Saudi pieces and the Israel and the Palestinian pieces taken together could fundamentally change the landscape of this Middle East.

“And that is the lens through which we see it and it’s certainly the lens through which the US Senate sees it and they ultimately would have a vote to ratify it.”

However, US lawmakers have been reluctant to pressure Israel to accept a ceasefire in Gaza. Asked whether Washington’s decisions could radicalize a generation of Arab and Muslim youth and create a Hamas 2.0, Ratney said careful diplomacy was required to achieve a lasting peace.

“It’s impossible for anyone who watches these scenes on a daily basis, and it’s certainly impossible for anyone that knows friends and family who have been engulfed in this conflict, not to be moved by it, and not to be motivated to find a solution as soon as possible, to find an end to the violence in Gaza, to find an end to the threats to Israeli security, to find a path to statehood, so that this sort of, for Palestinians, to ensure that this sort of conflict doesn’t resume,” he said.

“The diplomacy involved with that is extraordinarily complex, and there’s areas that we pursue, and there’s positions that we take that sometimes aren’t popular, but they’re based on our sense of the most expeditious, the most effective way of pursuing it.”

Ratney was further challenged by Jensen, who asked him whether the whole world could be wrong on Israel and why the US appears reluctant to listen to its closest allies and apply firmer pressure on its ally.

In response he said: “I think it’s safe to say that both President Biden, Secretary Blinken, all of our senior officials, have been heavily involved. This has been a major preoccupation of theirs since the outbreak of violence on Oct. 7.

“They have been in the region steadily. Secretary Blinken has been here six times since October 7, our national security adviser as well. In almost every case, that involves visits to Israel as well, where they have, sometimes, very difficult and very direct conversations.

“We have an important relationship with Israel, we have an important partnership with Israel, and we utilize that relationship and partnership to find a decent end to this conflict.”

Saudi Arabia and the US had differences of opinion on regional issues after the Biden administration took office in 2020. However, after President Biden visited the Kingdom in 2022, the differences have made way for greater convergence of opinions.

Ratney, who has been ambassador to Saudi Arabia for a year, said the bilateral relationship was already better when he took up his posting, and that there was potential for even stronger ties.




Ratney, who previously served as a diplomat in Israel was speaking to Frankly Speaking’s Katie Jensen. (AN Photo)

“When I got here a little over a year ago, the relationship felt like it was in a good place. And I do think that’s the case. And I think over the last year, it has gotten better and better as our partnership has diversified, as we’ve delved into negotiations over a potential historical agreement between our countries.

“So, if I look ahead a year, two years, three years, what I’d like is that trajectory and the speed of that diversification and partnership to continue.”

Ratney said he has been impressed by the pace and scale of change in the Kingdom in recent years, particularly the empowerment of women — least of all the lifting of the ban on women driving.

“Women driving is really the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The big change, the big innovation — and it has fundamentally changed the face of this country — is the fact that women are involved in every aspect of the economy, in every aspect of society.

“And that’s as simple as me going into meetings with senior government officials and seeing women are full participants in these discussions.

“And they’re not there as symbols. They’re highly educated, in many cases, as well-educated or better educated than their male counterparts, often at US universities. And it’s an extraordinary thing to see.”

Turning to areas of cooperation and opportunities between the US and Saudi Arabia, Ratney said there was now scope for trade and exchange in high technology and the creative industries.

“We work heavily with US companies that become intrigued by this market, to export to this market, to partner with Saudis here and invest here, and we see it in areas like not just healthcare, but infrastructure,” he said.

“Obviously, this country is making huge investments in infrastructure and US companies bring real value there. In high tech, Saudi Arabia has ambitions to become a hub for innovation and technological development.

“That in many ways is a US brand, and so US companies, whether Amazon or Google or others, are here, are interested, are involved, and are becoming partners with Saudis in those efforts.

“In the past, there was never much of a film industry here. Now we see US film and television companies interested in partnering with Saudi’s nascent film industry. That’s just extraordinary as well. So across the whole economy, we see opportunities for the US.”




Michael Ratney, the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was shown a special edition of Arab News by Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas during a visit to the headquarters of the newspaper in Riyadh on May 30. (AN Photo)

Some commentators have suggested that the US has lost business to China in the scramble for contracts in the Kingdom, particularly in relation to technology and communications.

“Are there competitors: Europeans, Chinese? Sure,” Ratney said. “But I have to say, where China might bring low price to the table, what the US brings is value and it brings innovation and it brings partnership, in a way that very few competitors can match.”
Another area of future cooperation is the space sector.

“To listen to the Saudi leadership talk about it, I think, quite rightly, a space sector, a commercial space sector, is becoming increasingly a normal part of any big healthy economy,” Ratney said.

“It was Axiom Space, a US company, that put two Saudi astronauts last year to the International Space Station — an air force pilot and a microbiologist. The Saudis clearly have further ambitions there as well, and we want to be a part of that.”

He added: “Space, commercial space in particular, is the future, and it is an extraordinarily lucrative and extraordinarily ambitious future.”

Although he is only a year into his posting as US ambassador to the Kingdom, Ratney is already looking ahead to the legacy he wants to leave.

“As Saudi’s ambitions expand, whether it’s expanding and reforming their educational sector, building a larger media sector, the space exploration that we talked about, building a high-tech industry, a whole range of areas where the US and Saudi are natural partners, I would like to see a few years from that for everybody to know about that and for Saudi to be succeeding in its ambitions and for the US to be seen as its number one partner as it does so.”

 


Mermaids make waves in the Red Sea

Updated 22 July 2024
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Mermaids make waves in the Red Sea

  • First-of-its-kind diving course in Jeddah offers aquatic adventures for summer

JEDDAH: Inspired by mythical sea-dwelling creatures, a diving center in Jeddah is offering a first-of-its-kind mermaid diving course for those wanting to splash around in cool waters during the summer.

Scuba Schools International at Al-Haddad Scuba in the coastal city offers a whimsical yet invigorating experience for those in search of an aquatic adventure.

All over the world, mermaids represent beauty, danger, transformation, duality, and feminine power. Today they continue to inspire literature, film, fashion, and even marine conservation efforts.

Ali Ayoub, Al-Haddad Scuba, certified mermaid diver

Arab News spoke to Corinna Davids, an Austrian scuba diving and swimming instructor known for her groundbreaking approach to mermaid diving. She developed the SSI Mermaid Program after years of expertise in free diving and swimming.

Davids became an instructor in swimming and scuba diving at SSI when she was 18 and has since revolutionized the diving industry, making waves with her innovative techniques and passion for the sea.

HIGHLIGHTS

• In April, Corinna Davids held the first mermaid diving course for instructors in Saudi Arabia.

• The course comprises extensive theory sessions, in-water training, and evaluations of teaching abilities.

Mermaid diving, she explained, is an art form that combines the technique of dolphin kick used in swimming with an exaggerated, aesthetically pleasing movement. This unique style not only looks beautiful but also ensures efficiency and safety.

“By mastering various fun skills and tricks, SSI mermaids can perform beautifully while maintaining safety protocols,” she told Arab News.

Saudi model Wafaa Al-Masry said the mermaid diving course was ‘a fun and unique experience.’ (Supplied)

Davids says that to become a mermaid one needs only basic water confidence. “The program is easily accessible, and to become a mermaid instructor, one needs to complete additional steps after becoming a mermaid,” she added.

The mermaid diving experience is incomplete without the mermaid costume. Davids recommends using high-quality monofins, such as the Mahina Monofin, which provides efficiency and aesthetic appeal. The tail skin, made from Lycra or scuba fabric, completes the look and will give mermaids the confidence to shine.

In April, Davids held the first mermaid diving course for instructors in Saudi Arabia, focusing on safety, technique and teaching methods to ensure that trainees are able to teach mermaid diving to students of all levels. The course comprises extensive theory sessions, in-water training, and evaluations of teaching abilities.

Initiatives such as the Vision 2030 plan aim to diversify the economy and promote tourism, which includes the development of new recreational activities like mermaid diving.

Ali Ayoub, Al-Haddad Scuba, certified mermaid diver

“The course received an overwhelmingly positive response from the trainees, who showed significant improvement throughout the program,” she said.

The newly certified instructors will be able to teach the mermaid diving program throughout Saudi Arabia.

“The primary aim of conducting this course in Saudi Arabia was to introduce a new, fun program that would appeal to kids and adults alike. Mermaid diving offers an exciting experience for those who may be hesitant to try scuba diving or freediving,” Davids said.

Corinna Davids, a respected scuba diving and swimming instructor known for her groundbreaking approach to mermaid diving. (Instagram/corinna.flowrebels)

Four participants from diverse backgrounds took part in the course, including a swimming instructor and lifeguard, two scuba instructors (one of whom is a doctor), and a free-diving instructor who is also an air traffic controller.

Ali Ayoub, a certified mermaid diver and scuba instructor from Al-Haddad Scuba, told Arab News: “Saudi Arabia has been undergoing considerable social and cultural transformations, with more emphasis on leisure and recreational activities.

“Initiatives such as the Vision 2030 plan aim to diversify the economy and promote tourism, which includes the development of new recreational activities like mermaid diving.”

Ayoub added that mermaid diving requires strong swimming abilities and good physical fitness. “Practice swimming regularly, work on your breath-holding techniques, and consider taking free-diving courses to improve your underwater endurance,” he advised.

He added that mermaid divers can participate in educational programs for schools, community groups, and public events: “They can share information about marine ecosystems, the threats they face, and how individuals can help. Their captivating presence can make learning about these issues more engaging and memorable.”

Wafaa Al-Masry, 22, a Saudi model, took the mermaid diving course under the supervision of coach Ayoub. She told Arab News: “It was a fun and unique experience. Initially, I thought it would be difficult, but with the training and the coach’s guidance, I found it easy and enjoyable.”

She said that breathing techniques, relaxation, and mastering the fin method were new skills she managed differently throughout the mermaid course. “The trainer was excellent in providing instruction, making the experience fun, and delivering valuable information,” she added.

Davids has written a comprehensive guide for those interested in discovering the magic of mermaid diving in Saudi Arabia. The guide provides all the necessary information for new mermaids to stay safe, make informed decisions, and choose the right equipment.

Having trained more than 3,000 divers in the past five years, Al-Haddad Scuba specializes in unique activities such as snorkeling, deep diving and night diving, providing immersive experiences of the vibrant underwater world alongside a community of fellow ocean enthusiasts.

 

 


Saudi farmer turns worm waste into wealth in innovative move

Updated 22 July 2024
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Saudi farmer turns worm waste into wealth in innovative move

  • Vermicomposting operation is an example of agricultural ingenuity

RIYADH: A Saudi farmer has developed a technique that transforms a common garden nuisance into a useful resource.

Mohammed Al-Shaer, of Al-Dhafir village in Baha, has established a thriving vermicomposting operation on his farm, producing high-quality organic fertilizer from earthworms, according to a report by the Saudi Press Agency.

Al-Shaer’s venture began approximately a year ago with a simple setup: a single 5-meter-long, 60 cm-high tank housing roughly 2,000 worms. The worms were fed a diet of dry leaves, organic waste, and food scraps and were closely monitored for four months, yielding over 300 kg of nutrient-rich compost and a tenfold increase in their population.

Baha farmer Mohammed Al-Shaer’s worm compost accelerates plant growth, enhances fruit production, and improves overall soil health. (SPA)

“Through extensive field trials and research into global best practices, I have gained insights into worm behavior, needs, and breeding techniques,” Al-Shaer explained in an interview with the SPA. His operation has since expanded to four tanks, producing enough vermicompost to fertilize roughly 250 trees on his property.

The benefits of this organic fertilizer are manifold. It accelerates plant growth, enhances fruit production, and improves overall soil health.

FASTFACT

Mohammed Al-Shaer’s venture began approximately a year ago with a simple setup: a single 5-meter-long, 60 cm-high tank housing roughly 2,000 worms.

Al-Shaer added: “The worms naturally enhance soil quality, optimize nutrient cycling for crops, and develop sound agricultural practices to enhance the production of fruits and vegetables.”

Looking ahead, the farmer aims to scale up his project to develop it into a comprehensive operation that produces large quantities of worm compost.

He also intends to raise awareness about this ecofriendly practice among fellow farmers through agricultural festivals in Saudi Arabia, encouraging his contemporaries to use organic fertilizer as an alternative to chemical fertilizers, which can harm soil, plants, and human health.

Local officials, notably Fahd Al-Zahrani, director general of the branch of the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture in Baha, have expressed support for the proposal.

Dr. Lubna Saad, an associate professor of applied nutrition at Al-Baha University, emphasized the scientific benefits of vermicomposting, describing it as a potent mixture of worm castings and processed organic matter.

“These worms consume most of the organic inputs, transforming them into vermicompost,” Saad said in an interview with the SPA.

“The resulting material is then sifted and filtered, producing a ready-to-use fertilizer suitable for all types of agricultural fields. It significantly enhances the soil’s ability to absorb and retain water.”

Farmers participating in the recent Khayrat Al-Baha Festival praised Al-Shaer’s initiative, noting improvements in their crop quality after using organic fertilizer, the SPA reported.

 

 


Al-Baha Honey Festival to begin Tuesday

The festival will continue for 14 days until Aug. 5. (SPA)
Updated 22 July 2024
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Al-Baha Honey Festival to begin Tuesday

  • Al-Zahrani added that all types of honey exhibited are tested carefully to ensure quality

AL-BAHA: Under the patronage of Al-Baha Gov. Prince Hussam bin Saud bin Abdulaziz, the 16th International Honey Festival kicks off on Tuesday, July 23, organized by the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture and held at the Cooperative Association of Beekeepers headquarters in Baljurashi Governorate.

Fahd Al-Zahrani, director general of the ministry’s Al-Baha branch, said the festival will continue for 14 days until Aug. 5.

The festival will continue for 14 days until Aug. 5. (SPA)

He said the festival will witness the participation of 90 beekeepers from seven countries to showcase their products.

Al-Zahrani added that all types of honey exhibited are tested carefully to ensure quality.

The festival will continue for 14 days until Aug. 5. (SPA)

Nine governmental, civil, and voluntary entities are also participating in the festival, which is one of the most important agricultural festivals in the Kingdom, attracting exhibitors and experts from around the world every year.

 


Financial district in Riyadh earns SmartScore Neighborhood certification

View shows the King Abdullah Financial District, north of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (SPA)
Updated 22 July 2024
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Financial district in Riyadh earns SmartScore Neighborhood certification

  • With this certification, the financial district becomes the first development in the Middle East and Africa to receive WiredScore’s SmartScore Neighborhood certification

RIYADH: The King Abdullah Financial District obtained the SmartScore Neighborhood certification by WiredScore, the world’s leading authority on smart building technologies, for its excellence in advanced digital infrastructure that provides a robust network, sustainability and seamlessness at the level of living, work and leisure.

With this certification, the financial district becomes the first development in the Middle East and Africa to receive WiredScore’s SmartScore Neighborhood certification.

The recognition comes after a rigorous evaluation and certification process that started in Sept. 2023, when WiredScore announced at a Cityscape Global event in Riyadh that KAFD met the pre-certification criteria for the SmartScore Neighborhood certification.

 


Saudi defense minister meets with French ambassador to Kingdom in Riyadh

Updated 22 July 2024
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Saudi defense minister meets with French ambassador to Kingdom in Riyadh

  • Reviewed relations between KSA and France and discussed number of issues and topics of common interest

RIYADH: Saudi defense minister Prince Khalid bin Salman met with the French ambassador to the Kingdom, Ludovic Pouille, in Riyadh on Monday.

During the meeting, they reviewed relations between Saudi Arabia and France and discussed a number of issues and topics of common interest, Saudi Press Agency reported.

The meeting was also attended by Prince Abdulrahman bin Mohammed bin Ayyaf, the deputy minister of defense and the Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Fayyad bin Hamed Al-Ruwaili.

The assistant minister of defense for executive affairs, Khalid bin Hussein Al-Bayari, and the director general of the office of the minister of defense, Hisham bin Abdulaziz bin Saif, were also in attendance.

On the French side, it was attended by the military attache to the Kingdom Jean-Christophe Guerdet and the ambassador’s adviser Wassim Zammat.