Inheritance track: Bandar Reda's domestic trade route to international business

In our series of inspiring life stories across continents, we hear how the head of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce learnt to negotiate as a boy of nine

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The tricky art of negotiation, so essential a part of closing a deal, is usually mastered by future business leaders during their university days or in the cut and thrust of their early careers.

For Bandar Reda, however, the formative lesson came at the age of 9 in a tough display of bargaining from perhaps an unexpected source.

As a boy, his parents encouraged him – along with his sister and two older brothers – to read voraciously from the vast personal library in the family home in Jeddah.

In case the allure of the books and all they contained was not enough, a monetary bonus was introduced, the equivalent of £2 today, for every one completed cover to cover then verbally summarised.

There was no limit on the number that could be read each day, night or week.

Within the diverse collection that encompassed history, geography, science, religion and philosophy, the young Bandar saw an opportunity to get rich quick: the comic book section.

The young Bandar Reda got off to a comic start in his business training when, aged nine, he tried to negotiate a deal with his mother. 'That's how I learnt about bargaining,' he says. Courtesy Bandar Reda

He read 10 in one sitting, calculating that he had just earned himself an easy £20, but he’d reckoned without his mother’s acumen.

"She figured out that the comic books were mostly pictures," Mr Reda, now 42 and the Secretary General of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, tells The National.

“We settled on £4,” he says, laughing at the memory. “That’s how I learnt about bargaining and getting into the real world of business.”

The passion for reading has sustained him ever since. His teenage self developed eclectic tastes, devouring works from Shakespeare and the classics to the supernatural offerings of Stephen King.

There was also Reader's Digest, the American general interest magazine full of science, adventure and humorous tales. These he balanced with his favourite Arabic writers.

English was spoken at home and Mr Reda’s strong language skills helped to prepare him at the age of 17 to continue the family tradition of pursuing higher education in the US.

His father, an architect and businessman, studied there, and his mother completed a degree in Texas, although she spent many years raising the children and managing the home.

Mr Reda joined his older brother, moving into the family-owned, three-bedroom house in Orlando, where he would go on to complete a degree in business and administration at Rollins College.

Adapting to the American way of life was smooth, he says, thanks to the frequent childhood holidays there.

He never felt like an outsider among his peers at college, mainly because knowledge of the international world beyond US borders was so limited at the time.

When a professor asked Mr Reda to introduce himself in a class one day, he obligingly said his name and where he was from.

The academic then turned to the other students, asking whether they knew where Saudi Arabia was.

“There were some funny answers,” Mr Reda says. “Some of them thought it was another state or city in the US. Some thought it was in Europe, others in Central Asia.

"That helped me to blend in, because no one knew what an Arabic culture was in the US.”

Becoming independent on the domestic front, however, was a little trickier for a young man so far from home, he admits.

“I had to learn to do things myself that I did not do back home, such as laundry and cooking. That was the hardest part, not the culture,” he says.

After graduating in 2004, Mr Reda’s studies led him into banking when he took a position on the management-training programme at Saudi British Bank (Sabb), in which HSBC holds a majority stake.

Bandar Reda with Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom. Courtesy Bandar Reda

The financial institution can trace its origins back almost 70 years to when it supported the kingdom’s early economic growth.

It later merged with Saudi Arabia’s Alawwal Bank in 2019 to create the third-biggest lender by assets in the Kingdom, although this was long after Mr Reda’s departure.

During his management training, he learned the ropes of every department.

The four-month stint in London with HSBC was a particular highlight, allowing him to linger in a city for which he had already developed a deep affection on family trips as a boy.

Later, back in Riyadh, he worked his way up the ranks for eight years until becoming senior business banking development manager in 2011.

It was about this time that he was approached by the Minister of Commerce and Investment to set up the Office of Commercial Attache to Italy.

“I was invited for an interview without knowing what it was for, but I sensed there was an international post,” Mr Reda says.

“The office was already there in Italy but it was inactive and they wanted someone to re-establish the whole thing from scratch, so I decided it would be an interesting adventure.”

In Rome, Mr Reda set about boosting the kingdom’s trade and investment with the European nations, while his two daughters, Layal, now 11 and Ons, 9, attended international school. His wife, Haneen, undertook a doctorate in biomedical science.

In Rome, while Mr Reda set about boosting the Kingdom’s trade and investment with the European nations, his wife Haneen undertook a doctorate in biomedical science. Courtesy Bandar Reda

On realising that beyond the Italian capital few people spoke English, he also embarked on studies, enrolling on several courses to learn the language.

All in all, the endeavour was a resounding success.

“My commercial attache office went on to be chosen as the pilot office, with the system copied across offices worldwide,” Mr Reda says.

After four years, with his term up, he was asked to lead the Saudi commercial attache office to the UK, the central headquarters for Europe covering 25 countries.

“It was pretty much the same role, building connections, maintaining business relations, eliminating obstacles and introducing investment,” he says.

Once more, his family moved with him in 2017, adapting quickly to their new life because of their frequent sojourns to London from Italy.

His daughters were again ensconced in an international school, and his wife took up a post at the Saudi health attache's office.

Why so many people from the Arab world have such a natural affinity with London is a question Mr Reda often asks himself.

He thinks that it has much to do with the “tremendously old and strong” relationship between the UK and the Arab region.

As Secretary-General and CEO, Bandar Reda focuses on growing the membership of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, strengthening bilateral relations, extending collaboration from traditional partnerships, and amplifying the voice of the Arab community in the UK. Courtesy Arab-British Chamber of Commerce  

“There are ties between the UK and the Arab world in terms of commerce, friendship, history and family,” he says.

It is a subject about which Mr Reda knows a great deal. Since 2019, he has been Secretary General and chief executive of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, a not-for-profit membership organisation that promotes trade and investment.

“The role was open and every Arab country could nominate someone for that role. Saudi had chosen me to be their nominee and Saudi won,” he says.

Much of his focus is on expanding the organisation’s membership from 300 – all UK companies exporting to the Middle East and North Africa – and extending the collaboration from traditional partnerships into new emerging industries, such as science, innovation, artificial intelligence, robotics and digitalisation.

But concentrating only on business deals is not enough, Mr Reda says.

It is also about strengthening the relationship between the two regions, and giving the Arab community a more prominent voice in the UK.

The pandemic has certainly made Mr Reda’s job more challenging. Business travellers heading out of the UAE, for example, cannot fly directly to the UK after the Emirates was added to the government’s red list here.

Dealing with anyone by shaking hands is totally different than a phone conversation

But he maintains that the restriction has nothing to do with commerce “or punishing each other”.

“It’s about protecting people from Covid,” Mr Reda says pragmatically, “and both governments agreed this is the best approach until the cases go down and then flights will start again.”

On the prospect of a trade deal between the UK and the GCC, he is confident it will happen in the near future.

“This type of negotiation takes some time but I know that there is good will on both sides to achieve mutual benefit in the outcome,” he says.

The council plans to restart trade missions as soon as possible, taking up to 15 British companies to the 22 Arab countries it represents. Tunisia is the first destination on the agenda.

“Dealing with anyone by shaking hands is totally different to a phone conversation when you are trying to conduct a deal,” Mr Reda says.

When not in the office in Mayfair or furthering his managerial skills through online courses, he has spent a considerable amount of England's most recent lockdown in any number of green spaces with his family.

Ask where he considers home, he is quick to answer London.

In pre-Covid times, the Redas made a habit of soaking up as much of the capital's cultural diversity as possible, wandering around the National History Museum or taking in a musical, such as Phantom of the Opera or The Lion King.

Once away from work, Mr Reda describes himself as a typical father and husband, enjoying quality time with his wife and daughters, Layal and Ons, and family holidays. Courtesy Bandar Reda    

“It's not just the show,” Mr Reda says, “it's also about walking to the theatre, buying the ticket, walking among the people excited to see the show, and you are a part of that group.

"It gives you a different feeling of culture that you cannot sense anywhere in the world except in the UK.”

So does his home in London feature a vast library similar to that of his youth in Saudi Arabia, built up book by book to pass down the family’s passion for reading to his own children?

“My wife and I are trying,” he says, with a resigned-sounding laugh. “But the devices and technology are a major obstacle.

"So we’re trying to shift that love of reading into maybe watching a documentary.”

Whether his girls are offered a financial inducement for each programme consumed and summarised, Mr Reda does not say.

If so, it is conceivable that his daughters, like their grandmother before them, may well give him a run for his money.