(MENAFN - Arab News) The German government has announced plans to set up a language center in Riyadh to teach German to Saudis in order to familiarize them with the European economic and cultural giant. German Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dieter W. Haller, made the announcement during an exclusive interview with Siraj Wahab and Saeed Al-Asmari of Arab News in Dammam this past weekend. The center is expected to open around the middle of this year.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
You have just inaugurated the German visa center in Alkhobar. What is its significance? How important is this step?
The ties between our two countries are expanding. There is huge interest among the peoples of both countries in each other. The business and tourist traffic between the two countries has risen sharply in recent years. Eastern Province is the industrial and economic powerhouse of the Kingdom. Previously all those intending to visit Germany from here had to visit Riyadh to apply for a visa at our embassy. Now they have this service right here. We have started this center with the help of VFS Global to make things easy for those who want to connect with Germany.
When you say there is increased interest, can you please provide us some concrete figures?
Our embassy in Riyadh processed more than 43,000 visas in 2012. This figure is significantly higher than the one in 2011. In 2011, we had 24,000 visa applicants.
How many German nationals are there in the Eastern Province?
We have between 500 and 600 German nationals in this region. I know this is a small number but most of them are highly educated and hold high positions. They are either representing German companies or are working in Saudi companies.
So those applying for a German visa will get a Schengen visa through this center, right?
Right. But I am sure you are aware of the fact that a person who is applying for a Schengen visa will have to apply for it at the consulate or embassy of the country which is the main destination of the visit. The main destination is understood to be the destination where the applicant intends to spend the longest time or where the main purpose of the intended journey is carried out. If a main destination cannot be identified, it is the country of first entry into the Schengen zone.
What is being done from your side to enhance interaction between the two sides?
We have considerably increased the number of multi-entry visas. When I took over at the German Embassy in Riyadh in mid-2011, we issued only 5 percent multiple-entry visas. Now it is 67 percent. We are issuing multiple-entry visas for Saudi businessmen and medical tourists. The visa validity is between 1 and 5 years. We think this is an enormous contribution to facilitate the growing interaction. This has been done because we know that Saudi businessmen travel at very short notice for meetings and trade fairs in Germany. We have made it easier for them by issuing multiple-entry visas. We would like to encourage all applicants to hand in their papers as early as possible, especially for the peak holiday season.
What is the state of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Germany?
For us, the Kingdom is a strategic partner. With no other country in the Arab world do we have such a multifaceted and broad-based relationship. This is reflected in many areas. Trade is one of them. Last year, we saw an enormous increase in the two-way trade. The trade volume has now reached a threshold of 10 billion euros. This is more than SR 50 billion. Saudi exports to Germany have increased more than 100 percent, however, from a low level. The trade balance is in our favor.
Can you tell us about the German companies in the Kingdom and if they engaged in technology transfer as well?
Yes, our German companies are not only interested in exporting their products to the Kingdom but they have also decided to invest in the production facilities here. Last year, we had three major strategic decisions. First was about Siemens investing 380 million in the establishment of a gas turbine plant in Dammam. That is very, very important because Siemens will be creating 2,000 jobs. Apart from the production plans, Siemens will establish a center of excellence that aims at transferring know-how to the Kingdom. The second strategic investment decision was by the Linde group. They want to establish a network for the supply of natural gas to Saudi Aramco, Sadara and other petrochemical companies. This is also a very, very big investment because Linde is part of our industrial landscape. The third strategic decision was made by the German construction company called Hochtief. It is partnering with a Saudi firm to execute the housing program in the Eastern Province initiated by the Ministry of Housing. In the first phase, they intend to build thousands of housing units, including villas and apartments. The German giant will be using the latest technology, and these villas and apartments will be highly energy efficient. All these major decisions concern the Eastern Province. This should give you an idea as to why we are here in Alkhobar.
How is the scene on the Saudi side? Has getting visas for German businessmen become easier?
The Saudi authorities are doing everything possible to facilitate the interaction. I have been informed that the Saudi government has now decided to officially involve VFS in the visa application process. I am told VFS will soon open a similar center in Berlin, in our capital. That should make things pretty easy.
You talked about trade, but what about cultural and educational interaction? How many Saudi students are studying in German institutes and universities?
We have about 1,000 Saudi students in Germany. A lot needs to be done on that front. We see big room for improvement. The basic hurdle is the language. We are a highly advanced and wonderful country, but language can sometimes be a barrier. Ours is not an easy language but one can learn it. This is the reason that our government has, in close consultation with the Saudi government, decided to set up a full-fledged language center in Riyadh. By doing so, we hope to be more attractive to Saudi students. The language center will be supervised by the embassy. We are currently organizing language courses with the help of professors from King Saud University. We have around 350 language students. We want to professionalize these courses and that is why we are going to open the new language center, hopefully, by the middle of this year.
We encourage all Saudi citizens to explore Germany. Not just for doing business. We still remain a very strong economy - in fact, the strongest in Europe. We are a country of rich culture and full of touristic and historic sites. We don't want to compete with the French as far as food is concerned, but we have a lot to offer. We are a country of diversity from the north to the south to the Bavarian mountains. Come and see for yourself.