A REVOLUTIONARY CUSTOM

Saudi Arabia 2017 | TRANSPORT | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Ahmed Al-Hakbani, Director General of Saudi Customs, on using greater efficiencies to become a 21st century transport hub, making institutional cultural changes, and going paperless.

 Ahmed Al-Hakbani
BIOGRAPHY
With an MBA from INSEAD and executive degrees from the IMD Business School and the London School of Economics, Ahmed Al-Hakbani is the Director General of Saudi Customs, the Chairman of the Board of the King Fahad Causeway Authority, and a board member of Saudi Airlines, the Natural Gas Distribution Company, and GASCO.

What changes are you pioneering at Saudi Customs in order to meet the National Transformation Program (NTP) goals?

When I started at customs, three initiatives pertaining to the NTP had already been submitted. The first was the automation of exporting processes, the second the post clearance audit, and the third the reimbursement of subsidies when exporting. These build on a long list of additions that will transform Saudi Customs into a truly 21st century customs authority that acts like an invisible experience for our customers, without compromising security or reducing revenue leakage. Vision 2030, which is connected to the NTP, is about transforming Saudi Arabia into a logistics hub. In order to do that, we need to be operationally effective and efficient. For example, we have reduced the number of documents required for imports from 12 to four and are looking at reducing that even more. We are in the middle of questioning every single document that we request, what we do with the data, whether it is needed, and how can we get it from other sources.

How will you be coordinating the 24-hour initiative with Saudi Ports?

This is a joint effort; I do not see it as a customs initiative, but for ports, customs clearance, and shipping lines. There is great synergy taking place in order to achieve the 24-hour target. Of course, this is a complete paradigm shift for our ecosystem's regular modus operandi; however, we made a calculated judgment about this. We are piloting this at King Abdullah Port and Jeddah Islamic Port. We are going through an exponential learning curve about how to optimize and upgrade our technology systems. Within Jeddah Islamic Port there are three operators; we have been successful in reducing the average dwell time from about 10 days to three days.

Cultural change is key across government agencies. How are you working to change the culture at customs?

That is one of our most significant goals. We are creating a big-change management program within customs in order to ensure that we involve everybody in this transformational journey. We are hiring a head of customer service, as well as a customer advocacy unit. We have launched an internal survey about rest periods because in remote areas they work about two to three weeks and then come back and take a vacation. We have changed that based on the feedback of our employees—it was not top down but bottom up. There will be resistance if we do not change this structure.

What other goals do you have for the end of 2017?

We have about 31 programs, each of which has its own set of initiatives and projects. It is too early to announce; we are still validating, questioning, and challenging each of them internally. We are still looking forward to engaging with the private sector and our stakeholders because we are going to start workshops from the beginning of next year. We can definitely launch the revised version of how customs clearance agents work. We are going to try to uplift the industry, revise and upscale guidelines, and ensure there is quality and accountability. Another critical program is the AEO, a World Customs Organization initiative. Saudi Customs had internally developed the program, and we are revising it so that we can launch it before the end of the year. Thirdly, there is the automation of our services. For example, we are still struggling with the technology system, but the idea is that by the end of this year we receive no paper documentation from anyone. Another critical element is the risk management system.