Saudi efforts to solidify ties with England's north-east are receiving a boost from the kingdom's interest in climate change technologies and other “cleantech” ventures.
A delegation of Saudi business figures and officials is visiting Newcastle in north-east England on Thursday and Friday, after participating in an event organised by the Saudi British Joint Business Council in London.
Prince Khalid bin Bandar, Saudi ambassador to the UK, said the country aims to generate half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 through its Vision 2030 policy.
“It's no good for one country or two countries or 10 countries to improve the environment. We need everyone to do it, otherwise we all lose,” he said.
“We're reducing our dependence on oil. We're doing that through diversifying our economy. How are we diversifying our economy? Clean technology is exactly one of the one ways we're achieving that.
“Our government is doing quite a lot within Saudi Arabia to invest in clean technology.
“We want to see innovation, we want to see clean technology, we want to see a better way of doing things. Efficiency not in one particular sphere, but efficiency in everything, from daily life to industry to manufacturing to use of energy.”
Prince Khalid added that Saudi Arabia wants to be a “world leader in clean technology”. The kingdom has pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2060 and the Saudi Public Investment Fund is funding 70 per cent of the current 700MW project pipeline.
UK Energy Minister Grant Shapps said that the Saudi “thirst for a greener future” matches Britain's, with cleantech viewed as “a ticket to energy security”.
“It is vital that we invest heavily in cleantech to ensure our green future,” he added.
All about the talent
The conference heard several times about the Saudi drive for cleantech and the ability of British innovation to help deliver it. The focus on north-east technology hubs is a coincidental to last year's acquisition of the Newcastle United Football Club by a bid backed by the PIF.
Lord Johnson, minister of investment, feels Britain is ideally and uniquely placed to assist with that acceleration.
“For me, it's about the talent — that's why people come to this country to make such investments,” he told The National.
“And if you make sure the investment environment is attractive, then that makes the ability of investors to make a long-term, considered view much easier.
“It's important to have a conducive business environment — stability and predictability, a clear regulatory structure, a consistent supply of talent and access to capital.
“If you invest in offshore wind or carbon capture in the north-east, you then have the expertise which we can transmit to Saudi Arabia or any other country that we're partnering with, and then they can make it home-grown.”
“So, we're keen to do more exchanges with exporters — make sure we take exporters over there so they can see the opportunities — I want to encourage British business to think about Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf area in terms of infrastructure opportunities.
“Truly, the opportunity in Saudi Arabia for exporters is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
“And the money that will be spent on building the infrastructure of an entire country in a relatively short space of time, plus transitioning away from not just fossil fuels, but its core revenue concept, is going to be just amazing.”
Businesses at the London conference sought to gain access to the expansion of the Saudi sector.
“For Saudi Arabia to reach its future targets, it will need a significant acceleration of clean technology,” said Neil Golding, director of market intelligence at the Energy Industries Council.
During their visit to the north-east, the delegation of Saudi investors and cleantech business figures will visit the area one locally based entrepreneur described as an “undiscovered gem”.
“The north-east is untapped,” Geoffrey Bye, the founder and director of AI Futures, told The National.
“There is incredible value there to be realised with the right partnership investments.”
Sam Cassidy at Invest Newcastle pointed out that the region has the highest level of foreign direct investment in the UK, outside of London.
“Cleantech is really front and centre for us at the moment,” he said.
“We have a traditional skill base around the energy sector.”
Power Roll is a company that makes ultra-thin, low-cost solar film strips that can be, as the company says, put on any surface, anywhere.
“The manufacturing and engineering competencies in the north-east are really quite extraordinary,” Don Scott of Power Roll told The National.
“We've been very successful at finding the talent and building the team. There's a great ecosystem of partners in the north-east who build machinery and manufacturer some of the parts and materials that go into our products.”
With the region being one of the centres of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, the irony of the location of Power Roll's cleantech manufacturing facility in County Durham is not lost on Mr Scott.
“What's interesting from our perspective is that they used to mine coal in the area, and our pilot plant is actually situated on an old colliery,” he told The National.
The UK Saudi Cleantech Venture Days also featured sessions in which UK and Saudi cleantech start-ups were able to pitch their concepts and innovations to potential investors.