(MENAFN - Arab News) Last month, my family and I participated in the time-honored tradition of Thanksgiving. This holiday season dates back to America's earliest days and has become embedded within our national identity and cultural experience.
For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a time for family, friends and to take a brief break from the frenetic pace of work and life. And while the holiday can oftentimes seem consumed by turkeys, pies, football, and long shopping lines, Thanksgiving is ultimately a national period of reflection and gratitude for all Americans, no matter their religion or background.
While celebrating this holiday here in the Eastern Province, I thought about everything for which I am most thankful. The health and well-being of my family is certainly at the top of that list. But beyond that, I am thankful for the renewed and strengthening partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia, particularly here in the Eastern Province. Americans and Saudis are both resourceful, cultured peoples with rich histories and strong national identities. And despite our different perspectives on some of the issues facing us, we are working together to address some of our world's most intractable challenges and to forge even stronger bilateral ties. For that, I am thankful.
For example, our Commercial Service has led nine trade delegations to the United States this year alone and Ambassador James Smith recently led a delegation of business leaders to the world's largest mining industry exhibition. The Commercial Service is now assisting more than 1,000 American firms, many of which are doing business in the Kingdom for the first time. American officials - including from the states of Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania - have also visited the Eastern Province to expand economic ties between our nations.
These efforts are bearing fruit. Bilateral trade rose to 61.2 billion in 2011, and reached 39 billion in the first half of 2012. A significant amount of that trade is centered right here in the Eastern Province: Just last summer, the US Export-Import Bank approved a 4.9 billion loan - the largest in its history - to support Sadara Chemical Company, a joint venture between Dow Chemical and Aramco. Projects such as this benefit the people of Saudi Arabia and Americans alike. For that, I am also thankful.
I am thankful because our cultural friendship is also growing stronger. Saudis from the Eastern Province participate in a variety of cultural and educational exchange programs that our Consulate General organizes here in the Eastern Province. Saudi students are also taking advantage of our educational advising services, which guide them in their goal to study in the United States. Over the next two years, our goal is to encourage more Americans to learn more about the Eastern Province.
In that connection, we are creating linkages between Saudis and Americans from all walks of life: from students to health care professionals, from college administrators to environmental planners, from journalists to judges. In this regard, our goal is not only to present American culture to Saudis, but to create opportunities for Saudis to share their culture with Americans.
Improved consular services certainly support this goal. The number of tourist and business visas issued to Saudi nationals annually by the Consulate General in Dhahran has increased more than 60 percent from 2010. We are looking for ways to increase that number even more. Saudi students and business people continue to receive visas in record numbers, and with shorter wait times. Eighty-five percent of approved applicants receive their visas within one week. This allows Americans to learn more about the Saudi people, culture and society, and for Saudis to see the best of America. Altogether, it strengthens our friendship. For this, I am thankful.
We are proud of our work to enhance the American-Saudi friendship and know that there is more to do. Continuing and expanding these efforts will be my number one goal as Ambassador Smith's Consul General in Dhahran. My colleagues and I want to welcome even more Saudi visitors to America, lead more trade delegations, and offer more educational and cultural exchanges. Not only that, but we want more American business leaders and students to visit here as well.
We want to hear your ideas to help us achieve these goals. Visit us at facebook.com/dhahran.usconsulate for more information. The more that Americans learn about Saudi Arabia, and vice-versa, the stronger that our friendship will be.
And, for that, we can all be thankful.
- Joey Hood is the new Consul General for the US Consulate General in Dhahran.