COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s Ambassador-Designate to Saudi Arabia Hilmy Careem told Arab News on Sunday that he intends to promote two-way trade, tourism, and export of skilled workforce to the Kingdom once he assumes office in Riyadh.
“There is a strong need to strengthen bilateral relations through the exchange of high-level visits between the two countries. This will be my priority,” Careem said.
The 70-year-old former mayor of Matale was named as Sri Lanka’s new ambassador to Saudi Arabia by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Sunday. He will succeed former Ambassador Azmi Thassim who returned to the island nation earlier this year after completing his tenure.
“I’m delighted to take up this important assignment in Saudi Arabia, which is the epicenter of the Arab world,” Careem said.
After obtaining a degree in business management from the University of Hong Kong in 1979, Careem began working as a businessman and soon inherited the Jewelarts Company, a renowned jewelry establishment in Sri Lanka.
He was appointed as mayor of Matale — near the hill capital of Sri Lanka — in 2002 and served in that capacity until 2016.
As an active social worker with the Azeeza Foundation, named after his grandmother, Careem said that despite all his achievements, it is his appointment to the Middle East that he is most enthusiastic about.
“This is the land where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born, and Saudi Arabia is the leading country in the Arab world. I feel it is an honor and privilege to serve my country from this holy soil,” he said.
Sri Lanka has long been a tourism hotspot for a majority of Saudis, with nearly 40,000 tourists visiting the island nation in 2018.
However, despite the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the ensuing travel ban impacting the tourism sector within the country and across the world, Careem said: “Sri Lanka will promote tourism to attract visitors from Saudi Arabia as well as from the Middle East as soon as the pandemic ends.”
Another area worth exploring is Sri Lanka’s exports to the Kingdom, he said, which includes bulk tea and apparel, and which amounted to $82 million in 2015, according to Sri Lanka’s Exports Development Board.
“Sri Lanka has the world’s best tea, and we are famous for gems and jewelry that could be properly marketed in the Kingdom,” Careem said, adding that spices could be also included in the list to boost trade ties between the two nations as well.
Saudi Arabia is home to more than 150,000 migrant workers from Sri Lanka who bring in $2.26 billion to national coffers annually.
The Kingdom, for its part, has helped “develop various infrastructure projects such as bridges, roadways, in addition to educational and health facilities,” part of the $1 billion provided to the island by the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) since 1985.
In 2018, the SFD granted two concessional loans worth $73 million to Sri Lanka for its higher education and water resource management sectors. This was in addition to another $28 million for the Wayamba University Township Development Project to improve the academic facilities and infrastructure of the university as well as support the livelihoods of people in the surrounding areas.