In the next two days, Swiss President Ueli Maurer will tour the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Talks are expected to focus on the prevailing atmosphere in the region after the recent attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities and Iranian violations of international maritime rules in and around the Strait of Hormuz, as well as exploring opportunities to expand trade and investment opportunities.
Maurer, who also heads of the Swiss Federal Department of Finance, is accompanied by a high-level delegation from major financial institutions.
His visit to Saudi Arabia comes on the eve of the Future Investment Initiative conference, which has become a regional and international attraction and is expected to witness the participation of the world's leading financial institutions.
Asharq Al-Awsat interviewed the Swiss leader ahead of his anticipated visit:
1. You are visiting the Kingdom of Saudi-Arabia soon, what are your expectations from this visit?
I will be spending a number of days in the Gulf Region together with a delegation from the Swiss financial sector. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are our biggest economic partners in the Middle East and Africa region. My visit to Saudi Arabia is a follow-up to my visit in February 2018, during which Switzerland and Saudi Arabia agreed to hold regular discussions on financial matters to engage in a financial dialogue.
There are further areas in which we see potential for closer cooperation between our countries. We seek not only to strengthen our economic relations; we also want to work more closely together in the fields of science, research and development cooperation. During my visit I will be sounding out my Saudi colleagues on the possibilities. Finally, I would also like to offer our good offices in an attempt to deescalate the current tensions in the Gulf Region.
2. How do you describe your relationship with Saudi Arabia?
Our countries enjoy strong ties. For many years, we have been welcoming guests from Saudi Arabia to Switzerland, especially to the Lake Geneva region. Since bilateral relations were established in 1956, cooperation has intensified and diversified considerably. Besides the growing level of trade, we pursue many other common interests. Let me give a few examples; at the multilateral level, we are both committed to efforts to reform the UN Security Council. And Switzerland has joined Saudi Arabia in the conservation of natural resources by supporting an innovative project for the protection of Red Sea corals.
Switzerland also welcomes the current reform process in Saudi Arabia and is ready to explore opportunities for new areas of cooperation. One example could be the eco-friendly tourism project on the Red Sea coast, where we could bring in the expertise of Swiss tourism organizations or hotel management schools. Moreover, thanks to the recently launched tourist visa, more Swiss visitors might soon travel to Saudi Arabia.
3. How do you evaluate the level of trade exchanges and political deliberations with Saudi Arabia?
Switzerland and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia look back on a long history of strong bilateral relations and trading relations. Swiss exports to Saudi Arabia remained relatively stable in 2018 and amounted to 1.9 billion Swiss francs. Our imports from Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, increased substantially to 833.5 million Swiss francs. Saudi Arabia is an important market, not only for goods, but also for services. Swiss financial institutions, for example, are well represented on the Saudi markets. At the political level, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia hold regular exchanges at all levels, which offer the opportunity to discuss issues in-depth and, at the same time, explore further areas of cooperation.
4. The Kingdom is witnessing a great transformation under Vision 2030. Are you interested in the investment opportunities resulting from such change?
I welcome the reform plans under Vision 2030, which should diversify the economy and reduce its dependence on oil. The Kingdom’s aim of fostering SME entrepreneurship and strengthening the development of the private sector are very important steps towards more sustainable economic growth. Let me emphasize the importance of integrating the female workforce into the labor market. This is key to inclusive social and economic development in the Kingdom.
Swiss companies already have a substantial presence in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Almost every month at least one more Swiss company establishes some form of business links with the country. Switzerland has a very liberal economic system and the role of the State is limited to creating favorable framework conditions. Private investors decide on new investment opportunities based on their own calculations and interests.
5. Switzerland is a very dynamic economy. What are the secrets behind this success?
You cannot put it down to any single factor. Instead you have to see it like a puzzle. Each improvement in framework conditions adds one more piece to complete the big picture. Having said that, some pieces are rather more important than others! In my view, the dual-track system of vocational and professional education is one of the key elements. The dual-track of practice and theory does not only prepare young people for work, but also provides top-level education at higher education institutions. Other important aspects are reliable governance, high-quality infrastructure and the stable legal and political system. Our tax environment is conducive to growth, resulting in a high level of employment. However, there are still many challenges ahead. Switzerland is facing major demographic changes in the coming years, which will be a challenge for the sustainability of our state pension system.
As for the potential for cooperation, cooperation already exists in many sectors. We have active dialogues at the political and economic level, and the many Swiss companies operating in the Kingdom are shaping the areas in which we cooperate. The recent developments and openings in Saudi Arabia are quickly creating new opportunities. Arrangements are already in place for instance among Swiss hospitality training institutions and their Saudi counterparts. This is a very promising sector and Swiss expertise can bring considerable added value.
6. Alongside your role as President of the Swiss Confederation, you are also Switzerland’s finance minister. Where do you see opportunities for cooperation between Switzerland and Saudi Arabia in this field?
We see various possibilities for closer cooperation in the financial sector that would be in both countries’ interests. Partnership between Swiss and Saudi firms could be envisaged, especially in areas where Switzerland and its financial center may be able to provide specific expertise. This could be the case, for instance, in the area of asset management or in sustainable investments. The increasing demand for sustainable assets and infrastructure, particularly also from countries in the Middle East, could provide the opportunity for deeper cooperation. Financing quality infrastructure investments for sustainable development, by leveraging technological innovations, is in the interests of both our countries. Moreover, within the context of Vision 2030 Switzerland would like to explore other areas, such as sharing best practices in the field of SME-lending and financing activities through banks.
7. Your visit to Saudi Arabia comes after the attack on Aramco, one that Iran is suspected of being behind. What is your stance on this?
Switzerland is very concerned about increasing tensions in the Gulf region. We believe any further escalation must be avoided, because another violent conflict would have devastating consequences for all peoples in the region and beyond. We immediately condemned the recent attacks on Aramco and welcome the thorough investigation that is currently underway into the matter.
8. Iran’s recent activities have raised the issue of maritime safety in the Strait of Hormuz, which, in turn, led the United States of America to react. What is your view on this?
Switzerland calls upon all parties to respect international treaties, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets out clear rules for the passage of commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz.
9. Does Switzerland plan to play a role in lowering tensions in the Gulf region?
Switzerland has long been committed to promoting security and peaceful co-existence in the Middle East and the Gulf region. We repeatedly offer our good offices to all parties concerned and are always ready to facilitate communication. This is nothing new and we will continue to do this under the current circumstances. Moreover, in addition to our longstanding protecting power mandate for the US in Iran, we have recently assumed reciprocal protecting power mandates for Saudi Arabia in Iran and vice versa.
10. Switzerland has previously played a role in attempts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. How do you perceive the peace process today?
It is now over 25 years since the Oslo Accords were signed, and key issues, including borders, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and settlements, remain unresolved. The situation on the ground, in particular, the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, the continuing blockade of the Gaza Strip and recurring violence threaten the prospects of a two-state solution. The economic and humanitarian problems caused by the Israeli occupation, the division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and high levels of youth unemployment are further challenges undermining prospects for a viable Palestinian State. According to Switzerland, a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians can only be achieved through negotiations based on the Two-State solution, as well as on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
Switzerland is engaged in the Middle East in cooperation and peace promotion and humanitarian aid programs. Switzerland encourages innovative approaches to addressing core issues of the conflict, in particular by supporting efforts to deal with the past and by promoting mutual understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. Switzerland also works hard to ensure that all parties respect international law. Moreover, Switzerland has been active in intra-Palestinian reconciliation. Through diplomatic channels, it assists Egyptian-led efforts to re-establish the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. Finally, UNRWA is an important multilateral partner to Switzerland whose role is essential for the security and stability in the region. Switzerland will continue working with UNRWA and other donors on reform efforts to ensure that UNRWA can provide its services more effectively and efficiently.
11. Switzerland is the depositary state of the Geneva Conventions, which are this year celebrating their 70th anniversary. What is Switzerland’s role in this regard?
I firmly believe that values serve us as a compass. They help us to find our way in a complex world and preserve what is worth protecting. One such compass is the Geneva Conventions, adopted 70 years ago. The purpose of international humanitarian law is to preserve the dignity of people in countries beset by war. It should be possible to treat the wounded and sick, for children to go to school and for civilians to be spared from the fighting. Yet we still encounter violations of international humanitarian law on a regular basis.
Switzerland is the depositary state of the Conventions, and humanitarian engagement is a key element of our foreign policy. Switzerland is firmly committed to strengthening and encouraging respect for humanitarian international law. In this anniversary year, we are calling on all states to take measures to improve respect for humanitarian international law. This is why the situation in Yemen is one of the issues that will be on the agenda for my meetings with high-ranking officials in the United Arab Emirates and in Saudi Arabia.
12. You have a special relationship with President Trump. How do you perceive Washington’s role internationally?
Solid bilateral relations with the USA are vital for our country. Our relations have strong historical roots. Switzerland and the USA have long shared common values such as democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. This, together with our own interests and priorities, provides the basis on which we work with the US government. At a meeting in May, President Trump and I discussed a number of issues, including the way in which Switzerland’s good offices can open up diplomatic channels in conflict areas.
13. There is controversy about immigration to Europe, and as a result, we are witnessing the rise of rightist, anti-refugee movements. Are there concerns about the notion of coexistence in Switzerland, specifically, and in Europe generally?
When it becomes hard to control streams of refugees, as was the case in 2015, it is understandable that concerns should arise. When we are able to control migration, it becomes less of an issue. Switzerland is pursuing a clear objective: people who need protection should receive protection; people who do not need protection must leave Switzerland at the earliest opportunity. We expect all prosperous regions of the world to show solidarity and to contribute towards solving the global refugee problem.
Around a quarter of the population of Switzerland are foreign nationals. In the vast majority of cases, we live our daily lives together without any difficulty. Integration is the key to maintaining the peaceful co-existence of Swiss people with our foreign residents. This works when every person living in Switzerland accepts the values set out in the Federal Constitution and shows respect for their fellow residents. Integration can be regarded as a success when all the residents of a country, irrespective of their origins, have the same opportunities.