BALKAN BEAT

Saudi Arabia 2017 | DIPLOMACY | GUEST SPEAKER

TBY talks to Rasim Ljaji , Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Serbia, on potential areas of cooperation, trade ties, and the country's foreign policy.

Rasim Ljaji
BIOGRAPHY
Rasim Ljajic serves as Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Serbia and has been the Minister of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications since July 27, 2012. He previously held the position of Minister of Labour and Social Policy. Ljajic is also President of the Social Democratic Party of Serbia. He was born in Novi Pazar, Serbia in 1964 and graduated from the University of Sarajevo School of Medicine.

What were your takes from your most recent visit to Riyadh, and how do you hope it will contribute to a new era in Serbia-Saudi relations?

The visit to Arabia was crowned by the meeting with HRH King Salman, with whom the possibility for Saudi Arabia to finance a joint infrastructure project of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina was discussed. Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina will come up with a concrete proposal of what kind of project it is going to be in order to jointly apply to the Saudi Fund for Development, where there are great chances to obtain funding for the project. It was also agreed to form a Joint Trilateral Committee, which will deal with the creation and monitoring of joint activities related to increasing trade exchange and the implementation of the Saudi investments in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the area of agriculture we agreed to organize a joint fair in Riyadh, where Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina will present their agricultural and food products as well as potentials in this sector. Construction companies from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina were invited to participate in tenders in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, a successful business forum was held during this visit, organized by the Council of Saudi Chambers, which brought together more than 30 companies from three countries. In addition, the visit of tour operators from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in April this year was agreed with the host, HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, during which the tourist offers of the two countries will be presented at the Saudi Arabian market.

With trade ties between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Serbia standing at a modest USD31 million for the previous year, which economic areas of cooperation will you look to strengthen in the years ahead?

Although the volume of bilateral trade exchange between the Republic of Serbia and Saudi Arabia is still modest and much below its real potential, it should be noted that during the past few years it has been constantly increasing, and that in 2015 it reached USD54.3 million, which is twice as much as 2014. That year, due to a sudden increase in exports from Serbia (an increase of 493.2% compared to 2014), a trade surplus was recorded for the first time on our side. The growth trend continued last year, in 2016, with the total exchange reaching USD97.9 million, which is an increase of 79.6% on 2015. For us this is a great result, especially bearing in mind that our exports have increased by 30 times in last five years. In 2016, our exports increased by 132.4% as compared to 2015. Serbia is keen on further improving overall economic relations with Saudi Arabia. There are numerous possibilities for establishing cooperation in areas that are mutually identified as promising: trade, agriculture, tourism, health and education, participation in infrastructure projects, and military-economic cooperation.

What is behind Serbia's strategy in the Middle East and what is your vision for Serbia's cooperation with the region going forward?

Work on building contractual and legal framework of economic cooperation with Saudi Arabia started immediately after the establishment of diplomatic relations in 2013. The first agreement between two states, on cooperation in the field of tourism, was signed in Belgrade in 2015 during the visit of HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Agreements on economic and technical cooperation and on mutual enhancement and protection of investments are currently in the process of negotiation, as well as an MoU on cooperation in the field of ICT. Once completed, they will open a vast area for improving bilateral economic relations, currently taking place exclusively through the trade exchange while maintaining direct bilateral contacts between the two countries at the highest level.