– Does return of Hajj quota for Russian Muslims in 2015 have some political reasons or is it due to the completion of the al-Haram Mosque reconstruction in Mecca?
First of all, I would like to stress that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia never organizes Hajj for any political reasons. We will not let anyone even try to politicize Hajj. I mean, in particular, the decision to reduce the Hajj quota wasn’t taken in relation to any particular country. Basically, this decision was taken because of the expansion of the two holiest shrines. We imposed a 20 percent cut in the quota for foreign pilgrims, and a 50 percent cut for domestic pilgrims.
The reason for quota cuts was to ensure safety of Hajj pilgrims during the two shrines’ expansion, a project that has been underway for the past decades, and also to improve service quality for the two shrines.
After the main part of the expansion was completed, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Rahman Al Saud moved to increase the Hajj quota during the 1438 H season. It reflects the King’s interest in the providing comfort and opportunities for those who want to worship with ease and pleasure. The Kingdom’s efforts to care for pilgrims are not limited to the two shrines or even the Kingdom’s borders. It starts with Saudi embassies and consulates abroad which receive a lot of requests for Hajj each year and help applicants to perform all procedures quickly.
– Does Saudi Arabia manage to cope with the consequences of the drought?
Everyone knows what kind of climate is in the Kingdom. It is too hot, the level of water evaporation is extremely high and the level of precipitation is small and that, in turn, affects the amount of water resources. Although the drought in 1998 had major consequences, it did not reach the level that would affect various areas of the world. Indeed, the Kingdom has taken a number of positive measures to cope with the drought. We built new underground storages for rainwater, the amount of fields for water-intensive grain species was reduced.
Due to the decline in agriculture, Kingdom started investing in agricultural projects of other countries where there is enough water. There are various programs and campaign for sustainable use of water, its filtration and sewage treatment so that his water can be later used in the irrigation of farms and gardens. It comes on top of the Red Sea water desalination method, and we also use advanced technologies to combat drought and water scarcity.
– Do government representatives from different countries often do Umrah during their visit to Saudi Arabia, as Rustam Minnikhanov did?
The Kingdom is always glad to welcome the guests of Allah and pilgrims. It takes every effort to provide all available opportunities to people who wish to do Hajj and Umrah in accordance with all the rules. However, it is not an obligation or tradition to do Umrah during an official visit to the Kingdom. It happens by choice and the Kingdom guarantees comfort in performing the rituals to all pilgrims.
– How does coordination between our countries impact the stance on the Syria crisis?
Certainly, coordination between states always has a positive impact on bringing positions closer and increases the chance of achieving a solution, not only with respect to the Syria crisis. In case of coordination between Saudi Arabia and Russia in resolving the Syria crisis, such coordination always exists; there are constant negotiations at the highest level.
In fact, the settlement of the Syria crisis was one of the key themes during the negotiations of His Highness Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 30, 2017. We hope for a speedy settlement of the Syria crisis and an end to the suffering of our Syrian brothers.
– What are the prospects for bilateral cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia in the energy industry?
I can say for sure that the prospects of cooperation in this area are promising. Energy cooperation is one of the most important fields of cooperation between our countries, not just at the bilateral level. Saudi Arabia and Russia are the most important energy producers, and the leadership of both countries played a crucial role in reaching the oil output cuts deal in December 2016. Later this agreement was extended for another nine months – until the end of March 2018, which helped to stabilize the situation in the world energy markets.
A special working group was set up to examine all possible areas of bilateral cooperation.
Also, there is a plan for mutual investments in the energy sector. There are joint projects, including joint research projects to develop and introduce advanced technologies in the oil and gas industry.
Furthermore, there are a number of petrochemical projects underway including industry-specific equipment production, we also participate in projects in third countries.
– What do you do to encourage Russian companies to work in Saudi Arabia going forward?
I would like to highlight all benefits of Saudi Arabia's economy: as a Top 20 economy, we are one of the world’s fastest growing economies and number four in terms of macroeconomic stability. We also pride ourselves on a powerful financial system, political stability and security, open and flexible economic policy focused on developing the private sector. These advantages protect the economy of Saudi Arabia from any economic and political turbulence and attract major foreign investment, especially as part of the "SaudiVision 2030" and the national transformation program seeking to diversify sources of income in a bid to cut dependence on oil revenues.
This is why we need to attract world-class companies to our market. It would prove the market can be appealing for investors and encourage a growing interest of international and Russian companies.
Alexander Novak, the Russian Minister of Energy, confirmed it during his negotiations with Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al-Faleh, the Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources of Saudi Arabia, in Moscow on May 30.
– What other areas have prospects for mutual cooperation between the two countries?
We focus on all areas without exception in our cooperation with Russia. However, there are areas such as energy or investment where there is more progress. By the way, there is an agreement between the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority and the Russian Direct Investment Fund on the establishment of a mutual fund with a capital of $10 billion for mutual investments. There are also many agreements signed in the last two years.
I remember the most recent agreement was signed during the negotiations of His Highness Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 30.
As part of a consortium of investors, the Saudi Arabian Sovereign Fund will take part in the redevelopment of former Tushino Airport in Moscow. Besides, we have cooperation in the military, economic and other sectors. There are also dozens of promising projects that will be implemented by the public and private sectors. I am confident that our bilateral relations have reached a new level and we made a great step forward towards strategic partnership in all areas.