By Usama Hussain
JEDDAH – Departing US Consul General Thomas Duffy is no stranger to the Middle East or the Kingdom. A seasoned diplomat who has had postings all over the Middle East including stints in Baghdad, Manama and Jerusalem, Duffy’s first posting to Saudi Arabia was in 1994 at the US Embassy in Riyadh. After taking up his current position at the US Consulate General here in June 2010, Duffy immediately began work to restore full visa services at the consulate and increase bilateral trade between the US and Saudi Arabia.
Sitting down with Saudi Gazette for an exclusive interview, the diplomat who is going back to Washington DC at the end of the month, shared fond memories of his time in the Kingdom and spoke about the strong US-Saudi ties.
“I have had the pleasure to travel across the Kingdom on many occasions. Everywhere we have visited, the Saudi people have welcomed us with open arms and shown us their beautiful country and shared its rich culture and heritage. As you travel across the Kingdom, you begin to appreciate the real diversity of the landscape and what it has to offer. Whether it is the breathtaking scenery of the Green Mountain in Abha or the ancient history of Madain Saleh, the Kingdom continues to surprise and delight residents and visitors, alike,” said Duffy during the interview at his residence.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah has made education reform one of his top priorities and his reign has witnessed tremendous growth and development of the education sector. Some of the Kingdom’s achievements in the higher education field include the opening of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal and Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh and dozens of other universities, colleges and technical and vocational institutes. The King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program has sent tens of thousands of male and female Saudi students on government scholarships abroad for higher studies and with over 66,000 or 51 percent of these students currently in the US, the country plays a key role in helping the Kingdom achieve many of its goals.
“As the US consul general in the Western Region, I have witnessed the rapid rise of universities across various parts of the Kingdom, ranging from Jizan to Tabuk. Given the large investments being made in the Kingdom’s higher education sector, these universities are often of the same size and scale as many major public universities in the US. Some of the largest public universities in the US have tens of thousands of students — the fact that the Kingdom has been able to build such large universities in just a few years is simply amazing,” said Duffy.
“These young people, studying abroad and in Saudi Arabia, are the future of this country. In the coming years, their enterprise, skills and knowledge will ensure the prosperity and security of this nation and we are very happy to help them achieve their academic and professional goals,” he added.
With the resumption of full visa services at the consulate here and in Dhahran, visa processing times have decreased significantly and the number of F-1 student and other non-immigrant visas being issued has increased. These changes have been welcomed by students and parents alike and Duffy said he expected the number of Saudi students in the US to increase further.
“Our visas service in the Kingdom has witnessed dramatic growth. Last year, at this point, we had issued around 40,000 visas across the Kingdom. This year so far, we have issued around 50,000 — a 20 percent increase — and the busy summer season is still not over,” he said.
The largest economy in the Middle East, a key member of the G20 group of nations, the Kingdom’s economic boom has seen massive investment and growth in virtually every sector. Bilateral trade between the US and the Kingdom has also increased with many American companies traveling to Saudi Arabia to seek new partners, forge new joint ventures and develop business ties. Duffy lauded the longstanding and close partnership.
“With annual bilateral trade of over $60 billion, Saudi Arabia is our 12th largest trading partner. The Kingdom is our 8th largest source of imports and we exported nearly $14 billion worth of products to Saudi Arabia in the last year. This was an increase by 20% over the previous year. These opportunities are strengthening the connections between our two nations and ensuring economic prosperity for all.”