Interview : Ambassador Hilda Al Hinai, Secretary-general of the CASCI

Interview with Ambassador Hilda Al Hinai, Secretary-general of the Arab-Swiss Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CASCI)

She is a familiar face in the international trade arena in Geneva. A career diplomat specialized in trade and international relations; Ms Hilda Al Hinai represented her home county Oman in this field for more than twenty years. She is not only a highly skilled trade negotiator but also a friendly and gracious person who gave up some of her precious time to talk to us.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Hilda Al Hinai. I’m originally from Oman. I worked as a diplomat for the Mission of Oman to the WTO for more than 20 years here in Geneva. I was in charge of WTO negotiations for the accession of Oman, and I also chaired the negotiations for the accession of Seychelles to the WTO. Over the years, I worked as a trade negotiator in the WTO. I also was in charge of WIPO, UNCTAD, and ITC. Before coming to Geneva, I was in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry for eight years.

You have just been appointed as the Secretary General of the Arab Swiss Chamber of Commerce and Industry . What is so exciting about commerce?

In short, people; projects; achievements; good results and not to forget the challenges as well.

Q: For the last couple of years, we have had the impression that multilateralism is running out of steam, that people are not trading as much as earlier, that trade barriers are on the rise. How do you see the situation?

A lot of people see challenges as opportunities to look further and not only to close in on themselves. Unfortunately, yes, we are facing what they call decoupling, for globalization is facing a lot of challenges now. Multilateralism is facing challenges. But I was at a summit a few months ago in one of the Arab countries, and I liked what one of the ministers said: while people are turning to protectionism, we are liberalizing. When you hear something like that, then you realize that, where some people see risk, others see challenge, an opportunity to open up to the world, to say to everyone: if they refuse you, we want you.

We live in a very cosmopolitan world where people learn and benefit from others culturally, scientifically, technologically. So, when you close in on yourself, you not only damage others, who will not get what you have, but you also do not learn from others. We interact, and from interactions we grow. So, when you close in, you don’t grow.

Could you tell us a little bit about the Arab-Swiss Chamber of Commerce and Industry? We have never heard about it before.

The Arab-Swiss Chamber of Commerce and Industry was established in 1974, so, it has been around for quite a long time. Next year we will celebrate our 50th anniversary. We are here as a link between Switzerland and the Arab countries, the members of the Arab League. Our role is to promote business, trade, and investments between Arab countries and Switzerland, and also to create opportunities for both sides.

Just before you arrived, a Swiss company came to my office looking for business opportunities in the Arab region. They came to us to ask us what we can do for them and where they can focus as a business.

They had a number of countries they wanted to focus on. They came here for advice. So, we advise companies, and we also help them to find partners for their businesses. We also create a link between them and the countries they want to invest in, with the government’s officials, with the promotion agencies, or with the people who will help them to establish their businesses in the Arab region, and vice versa. For Arab companies that want to do business in Switzerland, we can do the same thing. We also advise countries and companies on so many issues, including making sure that the companies they want to work with in the Arab region or in Switzerland are reliable and well known, and that they are not fraudulent.

In addition, we organize networking events for our members from the Arab countries and Switzerland. We are also planning to resume Fact Finding missions and visits for companies to explore opportunities and find business partners.

Q: When we think about your region, we often think about oil and gas, yet the region encompasses a great variety of countries, some very rich, some very poor and everything in between. How do you conciliate all this?

One thing all Arab countries are rich with – other than oil and gas – is the sun. Other than a commonality when it comes to energy (and I’m talking about the sun as a source of solar energy plus the new renewable energies that we are looking into right now), we’re also looking at tourism as an important sector in the Arab region.

I can talk about all the regions, not only one particular country, because we are rich in civilization , culture and history. Switzerland is very experienced in tourism, and I think here is something we have in common, and we can benefit from it together. So, we should not look at the Arab region only as a source of oil and gas.

You can also think about the sun, the sand and the sea. You can certainly also think about the culture. We have so many other products – for example, in the food and agriculture sector. Maybe the region is not very well known for its agriculture products.  Currently, most of the agricultural products come from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, but we have for instance olive oil production in many Mediterranean Arab countries all the way from Jordan to Morocco.  In Morocco we have Argan oil. In Sudan we have the Arabic Gum. In Oman we have the Frankincense.  Egyptian Cotton is the best cotton in the world.  We also have the most famous coffee in the world in Yemen and Vanilla in Comoros. The Arab region is also very rich with dates, Another  fruit that is very rich in nutrition but it has not been branded and marketed very well around  the world. Like the sun, dates is a common fruit in all Arab countries from Yemen to Palestine to Mauritania. With hundreds of varieties of dates trees in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Many countries in the Arab region are also very rich with fish and fish products. There are so many other products that are well known in this part of the world – but not beyond – that we need to promote so people can learn about what we have to offer.

Q: You just started at your new job. Could you tell us a little more specifically about your center and what you would like to achieve?

I started in this new position ten months ago, and I think being here is a good opportunity for me. I’ve lived in Geneva and in Switzerland for a long time, so, I know the country very well. I also know the Arab countries and their cultures and what they’re looking for. There are many sectors and many issues that we want to focus on.

The Arab countries are diverse, and, if I may say so, we can be divided in three categories. The first is Arab countries that are economically advanced, like the GCC countries. Then you have Arab countries that are economically not doing so well, and are facing many challenges, including unemployment. Then you have the least developed Arab countries and Arab countries that are in conflict, what we call fragile and conflict-affected states.

All of these countries have some common needs, but also some differentiated ones depending on their specific economic situation.

Q: Let’s take a company from Switzerland that would like to invest in the Arab state. They come and talk to you, they ask for advice. Are you a kind of advisory board that is charging for this, or is it free of charge?

At the moment, we do it free of charge, but you have to be a member of the Chamber. For instance, the company that was here before you arrived wanted advice about the investment opportunities in the region. We spoke to him and I asked if he would like to become a member of the Chamber. If he does I will be able to focus on him. Otherwise, if he is not a member, and I have other members who have already requested information or service from me on other, different issues, I need to focus on them. The members are our priority. I encourage all Swiss and Arab companies to become members of the Chamber so that they can benefit from our services.

There is a huge interest today from the Arab countries in the Chamber’s work, especially since a lot of Arab countries now are moving towards economic diplomacy.

Q: Economic diplomacy?

Yes, economic diplomacy now is a big issue, not only in the region, but also in the world. That’s why they are focusing more on investments, trade and economy, and not only on the political issues.

Q: I know that trade for peace is an area that you’re very focused on. Could you please tell us something about this?

It is a topic I’m passionate about because we have countries in the region that are affected by conflicts,  and I have joined  the “Trade for Peace” initiative at the WTO . This is a program that WTO started, and I want to thank them for including me.

I have participated in some of the activities since they started, and I continue my cooperation with them. As you know, we have a number of Arab countries that are involved in conflicts. I think this initiative is important if we as a Chamber together with the WTO and other international institutions can support this trend of promoting trade to achieve peace.

When people stop fighting and start trading and see the benefit of trade, they do not want to fight. They will not want to harm their businesses. They can see the benefit of being at peace. So, once you start trading, you promote peace, because once you are at peace and prospering, you don’t want to go to a war. And one can realistically hope that this will be the case. As they say, trade is no guarantee for peace, but trade is a catalyst for peace.

Q: Despite the hardship that your region has been facing lately, are things moving – young people, new initiatives?

You know, I’ve been living in Switzerland for more than 20 years, right? And every time I go back home, I am pleasantly surprised by the younger generation. When I left, I left people at a different level of technical knowledge and awareness. When I go back home now and see these young TikTok generations, you can talk to them. They are ahead of so many of us, the older generation. They know a lot about what is happening around them and in the world. And you can see the influence of everything on them – technology, media, knowledge.

We might sometimes think they are not serious, but when you talk to any of them, you are surprised by the level of knowledge they have. And they are talking a language that is for us, and we must bring them along.

You asked me also earlier what I want to do. One of the changes I want to bring to the Chamber is to include the younger generation in our conversations. I think it’s very important as part of my mission here in the Chamber, to include women and youth in our initiatives.

They are the future! We talk about them, but we don’t include them. I attend a lot of meetings in Geneva. People talk about the youth, but, wherever I look in the room, there is nobody young! I see the influence of youth in different parts of the world. It’s amazing. You know, a young man in any part of Arabia, he will be talking to a young man in Sweden, in Germany, in Switzerland. They influence each other and are following trends that we know nothing about. You have to follow the trends to know what is happening. They influence the media, they influence the thinking, they influence the decision making.

Q: I’ve been in the Arab world, and they say that the information doesn’t flow, that people there don’t get the information, that we here don’t get their information. So, without knowing, we are ignorant of what’s happening on the other side. Do you agree?

In the Arab region, we know more about the world than the world knows about us. We are more open-minded and we learn more about others than others learn about us. I call it selective ignorance nowadays because people in the old days, they would have one TV station, one newspaper, one radio station, and all the information would come to them through that. They had no other choice. Today you have options, and it’s up to you. Now, people watch certain TV channels because it speaks their language, and they get what they want to hear. They do not want to hear something different. I watch three or four TV channels. Throughout the day or sometimes on the weekend, I can watch the same news from different channels.

I go and check in another, any other, newspaper on what they are talking about, what they say about the same subject. And usually, today with WhatsApp, a lot of people will just share with you the news even before you know about it through the media. You will hear the same thing from different sources. So, if people really want to learn about each other today, they can.

Q: Do you have any plans of organizing events or something in particular coming up?

Yes, actually, since I started working for the Chamber, we organized the Assembly, the annual meeting in March this year. And we also organized an event that was attended by our members. We invited a speaker from the Ministry of Economy of Switzerland (SECO), Ambassador Ivo German, who was our speaker for the event. He spoke about the Economic and Trade Relationships between Arab countries and Switzerland.  In June, we participated in the WTO public forum. We organized a session on the role of the Arab private sector on saving the planet.

That was within the context of the WTO public forum this year whose theme was, It is time for action. We had a speaker from Dubai, from UAE Environmental Group. We also had the Ambassador of Oman and the Secretary General of the Union of Arab Chambers as our partners and speakers as well.

Speakers from UNCTAD and ITC also participated in our session. It was well attended by some Arab ambassadors, members of the United Nations organizations as well as by some of our Chamber members. They found it very informative and useful. I also participated as a moderator in the Trade for Peace session during the WTO public forum as well.

In December, we are planning to participate in the UNCTAD e-week. We will have a speaker in one of the sessions on e-commerce and consumer protection. We are also planning to organize a Zoom session in November for Arab and Swiss companies and our members. It will discuss whether the Arab companies are ready for environmental and social governance standards, because ESG is a big issue now for companies.

And we want to make sure that, in the Arab region, the small and medium enterprises – especially these SMEs – are aware of this trend, the new trend, that will be an obligation on them eventually. For the time being, it’s more on companies that have IPOs, but eventually environmental and social governance will have to be implemented across the board. And we want to make sure that companies are prepared for that.

Leaving Ms Al Hinai’s office, we wish her all the best of success, knowing that she will definitely succeed in putting the Chamber back in the limelight.