At the close of the International Conference of Science Parks 2009 in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, an event bringing together leaders in technology from around the world, the team from Korea's famed Daedeok Innopolis research cluster ascended the stage with a banner proclaiming that they will host the 2010 conference. Suddenly Daedeok Innopolis' CEO Kang Gyedu pointed to a tall bearded man from the Middle East, exclaiming: "Come on up. You are Korean too!"
That that man was Dr. Mezyad Alterkawi, CEO of the Riyadh Technology Incubation Center, one of the Middle East's great innovators and a great fan of Korea. Dr. Alterkawi recently wrote a series of papers promoting closer economic and technological ties between Korea and Saudi Arabia that have received much attention.
Dr. Alterkawi's arguments for a close win-win relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Korea reveal more than just affection. He has clearly done his homework and effectively assessed the real potential for the two nations to work together with a greater degree of intimacy and purpose.
Dr. Alterkawi took a few minutes from his busy schedule to speak with us about his ideas and his vision of a special relationship with Korea, the country he enthusiastically refers to as the "place I want to retire." He hints he is already looking for a place to buy a villa in his beloved country.
Q: What was it that led you to have such a great interest in Korea
A: I had the occasion to visit Korea last year for the International Conference on Innovation Clusters and I was struck by the humanity of Korean culture. I noticed a profound emphasis on respect and concern for others in Korea and that made a deep impression on me. Korea has a great tradition of concern and compassion for others, and treating every individual in the appropriate and considerate manner. We have a lot to learn from that culture. I could also see that businessmen from the Gulf States could grow to love Korea if they only had a chance to know her.
I was equally impressed by the incredible drive of Koreans to do a good job in their work and develop extremely high levels of competence. Koreans do not boast about their competence, but they lead the world in science and technology.
Many people in Saudi Arabia ask me: why Korea I say: "look at your phone, your car, your house and your computer. It is all from Korea. China is big, but it has not produced any brands like Samsung and Hyundae. Japan does not have the global reach of POSCO and Doosan. We must recognize that Korea is a major player. In the Middle East, there are really no schools teaching Korean or Korean culture today. That has to change and I want to lead that change.
Q: Why did you think Korea was so important to Saudi Arabia
A: Well, we must recognize that Korea is a powerhouse economically and technologically. Here is a nation that is coming of age-and the election of Ban Ki-Moon as Secretary General of the UN proves that for all of us.
At the same time, Korea has some real needs before it can move up to the next level, to compete one-one with Japan and Germany. Korea will need capital so it can build science parks like Singapore's North One. Korea will need energy and other resources to drive its economy. And Korea will need young people because its low birth-rate has resulted in the most rapidly aging population in the world. Well Saudi Arabia can help in each case. Saudi Arabia can provide the financing that will allow Korea to compete with Japan, Germany and the United States at all levels when its technology is fully funded. Saudi Arabia can provide the energy resources and plastics that Korea needs and Saudi Arabia has a very young population of people who could be a next generation of experts for Korea as it internationalizes.
I tell my friends in Saudi Arabia to learn Korean. They are not taking me seriously yet, but recently I have noticed a few people are starting to listen to what I am saying. Korea is the best partner for Saudi Arabia.
Q: Lots of people in Korea talk about getting that oil money investment, but in most cases it is just talk. What is the difficulty
A: Koreans have often thought rather simplistically that Saudi princes will come and just shower them with money. But the first step to make investment happen is to effectively assess how the Saudis see the world. Until we see how the Saudi investor perceives his own interests, and what his concerns are, it will be difficult to reach a workable deal.
You see Saudis are not just interested in making money. They care about their country and want their efforts to be meaningful at home. To the degree that Koreans can find ways to make Saudis see that Koreans care about Saudi Arabia itself, and are true friends, the potential for investment will increase dramatically. Just increasing donations to Saudi charities will help Korean companies in business. Well the Korean companies may feel that Saudi Arabia has enough money, but that is not entirely the case. The decision to care about all Saudis has a great significance. We have to build real win-win deals.
Q: How can Koreans build a real win-win deal with the Saudis
A: The first step towards the win-win deal is first understanding what both sides need and building a project that meets both those needs. Koreans want Saudis to come and invest in Korea. That is natural, but you know what Most Saudis would like Korea to invest in Saudi Arabia.
Well Koreans are confused about this matter. They think the Saudis are rich and they should bring their money to Korea. But it is a fact that part of the win-win deal should include Korean investment and confidence in Saudi Arabia.
So instead of talking past each other, let us build, through careful consultation, a real win-win deal. For example, Koreans could build a research center in Saudi Arabia. They take the first step saying that they want to help Saudi Arabia. That act builds up the good will. The research center in Saudi Arabia will naturally be intimately linked to a center in Korea.
After the Koreans have made the initial offer of investment, the Saudis will feel a strong sense of trust and will start to invest in making that research center the best it can be. That will eventually bring in considerable Saudi capital. Because the research center is tied to one in Korea, that funding for Saudi research will benefit Korea immensely. This is what both sides can see as truly win-win. It is the way to go.
This process cannot be achieved simply through rational analysis: there is a demand for a strong personal touch from the very beginning. I have found the Saudis and Koreans put a strong emphasis on personal interaction, sympathy and understanding. Unfortunately, the people in both our country who could work together most effectively, do not know each other personally, often exchanges are through institutions that are impersonal-so we don't know how similar we are.
Q: What does Saudi Arabia offer to Korea
A: Saudi Arabia is in a fast developmental mode these days, just as interested in reform and new, innovative approaches as Korea. Saudi Arabia wants to transform its relatively underdeveloped oil-based economy into that of an industrial state and it takes Korea as a model.
In 2005, Saudi Arabia entered the World Trade Organization. We are currently in the midst of a major five year plan focused on education and a knowledge-based economy (2005-2010). Therein lays a tremendous opportunity for cooperation. The mismatch between the job skills of Saudi graduates and the needs of the private job market at all levels remains the principal obstacle to economic diversification and development. More skills are also needed to reduce unemployment and to lessen the current dependency on foreign labor which still comprises about a third of the population. Korea is also reforming its educational system and we want to work hand in hand with Korea. That is why we have started sending some of our best and brightest to Korea from this year.