Message from His Excellency Dr João Gomes Cravinho, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Co-operation of Portugal.

Portuguese-Arab relations: historical roots and challenges

I was especially pleased to accept the invitation to record my views about the relationship between Portugal and Saudi Arabia and to underline the significance of the development of the bilateral relations, and the need to increase the level of mutual knowledge and co-operation between the economic agents of both countries.

The publication of this book within the scope of the Painting & Patronage initiative promoted by His Royal Highness Prince Khalid Al-Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud is of great artistic and cultural interest and thus obtains, simultaneously, intentional symbolism and significance.

In effect, the launching in Portugal of this initiative is not only proof of the strong links of friendship which unite our two peoples but of a further and significant page of the bilateral relationship which follows an historical tradition of contact between civilizations almost as old as both our nations.

Portugal was throughout the ages a crossroads of different civilizations and the Arab presence during centuries decisive in terms of our individuality. This heritage is easily observed in our language, our gastronomy, our architecture, our decorative arts, our town planning, our popular music, and in the customs and habits of the Portuguese.

Equally, Portugal, through its pioneering activity in the discovery of new routes and new worlds, is an obvious presence in the Persian Gulf, including the Arabian Peninsula, since 16th century.

The historical and cultural links construed since then have been the basis of the relationship between Portugal and the Arab world, and this continues to be one of the remits of Portuguese external policy. Its development has gone through the deepening of political dialogue and the intensifying of business contacts to further strategical partnerships.

Portugal and Saudi Arabia share a valuable common tradition, as evinced by the diversity which needs to be cast forward into the future. Both countries are of an opinion on the objectives of peace and development, and have shown the ability to encourage dialogue and consensus solutions between peoples, essential aims in the actual international context disquieted by conflicts and tensions, by the return of disaffection and fanaticism and by the reopening of ethnic and religious antagonisms.

After the opening of diplomatic relations on 18 June 1980, Portugal established its Embassy in Riyadh in 1982. We must however recognize that bilateral relations, specifically regarding business transactions, economical cooperation and investments, do not mirror the existing great potential and are far below the expectations of both parties, and we must thus address our common efforts and diligence to overcome the current situation.

In order that this becomes possible it is necessary that high level contacts are increased, and to enact a number of juridical and diplomatic agreements which will frame and propitiate the development of economical relations, namely in the area of investments, enhance the awareness of economic agents regarding the strengths of both the Portuguese and Arab markets, arouse the interest of Chambers of Commerce, identify economic and business projects of mutual interest, activate contacts between representatives of the civil community, promote cultural and higher education exchanges, examine the opportunities for partnership in the areas of security and defence, and implement efficient means of exchange of information.

This is what we are working on and I am thus very pleased with the progress in the negotiations over the text of the General Agreement on Cooperation between the two countries, which will cover several fields of activity, specifically in the areas of the economy, business, investment, education, science and technology, culture and media, tourism, youth and sport. This agreement will house the possibility of negotiating future sector agreements within the referred areas.

In the area of the economy, there has been an increase in the exchange of entrepreneurial visits which has shown a positive contribution towards exploring mutual business opportunities and the appraisal of the respective markets. Portuguese business interests cannot ignore the potential of the Saudi Arabian market as an export destination with special regard to the dynamism of its economy and to its expanding market. Trade figures show a very appreciable surplus in favour of Saudi Arabia, which it would be desirable to balance out. In 2004, our exports which are made out of decorative stones and rocks, timber, cork, paper and machinery, added up to 55 million euro, whilst imports, mostly of oil and related products, totalled 302 million euro.

But also as a generating area of capital flows and investments, Saudi Arabia merits special regard. It is urgent that we create attractive conditions for Arab businesses and enterprises to be located in our country.

The importance of Saudi Arabia as a supplier of oil and natural gas and the strategic interest in the area will be greatly strengthened with the creation, foreseen for 2007, of an Arab Free Trade Zone, which will comprise some 300 million people. Portuguese enterprises should be aware of the size of this project and look for synergies which may allow them to invest in that important market with efficiency and competitively.

Portuguese official bodies will very naturally follow with great interest the formation and potential of this Trade Zone; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially, will endeavour to obtain and supply Portuguese enterprises with actual and relevant information concerning the business opportunities which will arise therein.

Both our countries have deep interests in the efforts for regional integration: Portugal as a member of the European Union, and Saudi Arabia in the Co-operation Council of the Arab Gulf States (GCC). The value of the two countries belonging to two differentiated regional areas must be appraised, and the dynamism resulting from our integration in two economic blocks with a high potential must be exploited. The current negotiations to establish a Free Trade Agreement between the EU and the GCC open up new outlooks or make the existing ones more attractive.

I must however underline that our relationship with Saudi Arabia must not be understood solely as resulting from a sequence of events or prescribed exclusively for economical reasons. It must be based on the firm desire to enhance the multiply diversified bilateral links, at a level compatible with the past and adjusted to the demands of a contemporary global world based on the universal values which are the heritage of Humanity.

The Official Visit to Portugal of His Royal Highness Prince Khalid Al-Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, an illustrious supporter and promoter of an ever greater approach between Portugal and Saudi Arabia, is an unmistakable sign of that anxiety and purpose which we wholly endorse.

The very laudable Painting & Patronage spearheaded by its chairman, Anthony Bailey, is thus an emblematic example of a route which must be urgently deepened, especially because it is in the discovery of our cultural diversity and the mutual enrichment derived from it that we find greater reasons for co-operation in other areas.

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