Diplomacy, from Norway to Saudi Arabia
Rolf Willy Hansen, Norwegian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says that once newcomers become familiar with the area and its customs, they find it a good place to live
Rolf Willy Hansen, Norway’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and his wife, Ingeborg Sundet, have found the country to be a hospitable and engaging place, not only as he executes his duties as ambassador but also as they experience Saudi culture and society. You may recognize his name; not long ago he served as Consul General in Minneapolis.
Norway and Saudi Arabia have had diplomatic ties since 1961, and the current embassy in Riyadh opened in 1985. Ambassador Hansen’s chief responsibilities are to strengthen and expand bilateral relations between Norway and Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen. The embassy promotes business and investment opportunities, presents information about Norwegian culture and society to the region, and assists Norwegian citizens.
Much in common
Ambassador Hansen used to say that the two countries have one common interest: “a stable and high oil price.” Neither applies in the current world oil market, but each can learn from the other in developing and managing their vast energy resources. They understand each other well and have a good ongoing relationship on oil and other energy issues.
Energy is not the only thing that binds Norway and Saudi Arabia. Each is a member of the United States-led coalition against ISIL. Saudi Arabia sees ISIL as an existential threat and is at the vanguard of the effort to defeat it. Counter-ISIL measures include interrupting its financing, stopping the recruitment of foreign fighters, and combatting its radical message.
Norway also hopes to expand its commercial contacts in the region. Jotun Paints has a strong presence, and Norwegian salmon is a popular commodity, but more can be done. Moreover, Norway wants to become a destination country for Saudi students and tourists.
Saudi Arabia and Syria
Prior to being posted in Saudi Arabia, Hansen was Norway’s ambassador to Syria, and he has interesting insights into the differences between the two countries. Syria is in many ways a Mediterranean country historically and culturally. It was tightly controlled politically; however, culturally it was quite open. The Syrians were warm and friendly, and people of different faiths and ethnicities lived next to each other in harmony. There was no dress code, and women were largely free to move about and engage in society. The cultural life was active, and Damascus was a delightful place to be.
Saudi society is much stricter, especially for women, who must wear an abaya (black dress) in public. Foreign women, too, must comply even if they don’t have to cover their hair as do local women. A “religious police” enforces compliance with dress requirements and other standards of behavior. They are less obvious than they once were, but they still exist. In private homes and the Diplomatic Quarter, dress codes are more relaxed but not completely ignored. Interestingly, though, Ambassador Hansen says that First Lady Michelle Obama’s uncovered hair and western attire at King Abdullah’s funeral really caused no great controversy.
For the Hansens, another adjustment to Saudi life was the climate, which is much hotter than Syria’s. Because of the harsh climate and the distances involved, most travel is by car, and since women are not allowed to drive, they need a driver whenever they travel.
Further, Saudi Arabia has no public entertainment as we know it. Things we take for granted such as concert venues, theaters, and cinemas, are not to be found. Sports arenas and stadiums exist, and soccer is very popular; however, that is restricted to men. However, Rolf and Ingeborg have been pleasantly surprised by the number of high-quality art galleries in Riyadh. Shopping and eating out are the most common forms of entertainment. Large malls and good restaurants abound, and food choices are virtually unlimited. The challenge is to restrict caloric intake.
Here, too, the people are very friendly, and once newcomers become familiar with the area and its customs, they find it a good place to live.
A day on the job
Ambassador Hansen’s principal job is to understand Saudi Arabia better, particularly with regard to its domestic politics and its role in the world, so that he can brief his foreign ministry as fully and accurately as possible. Saudi society is rather closed, and a westerner needs time to understand it. That requires a lot of reading, following local and international media, talking to colleagues, and meeting with Saudi officials and businesspeople, journalists, and academics who follow Saudi Arabia. The lack of transparency presents challenges, but it also makes the job more interesting.
Procedure and protocol define much of an ambassador’s job. All meeting requests go through the Foreign Ministry, a time-consuming and bureaucratic process. Ambassador Hansen spends a great deal of time reading, making telephone calls to colleagues and meeting with them, and making official phone calls to ministries and Saudi institutions, all to learn about the country and respond to requests from the Foreign Ministry and Norwegian citizens.
From time to time, Ambassador Hansen pays courtesy calls on regional governors, a pleasant and informative experience allowing him to meet officials and get about the country. He also regularly visits Jeddah on the Red Sea, a commercial capital in many ways and the site of a European Film Festival, where the Norwegian film “Pioneer” was screened last spring. Hansen also visits Dammam on the Persian Gulf, the center of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. His duties also take him to Oman, an open and hospitable country, but Yemen is off limits because of the current unrest.
Occasionally, delicate and intensely challenging situations arise, as happened with the Norwegian citizen jailed in Yemen last March for practicing “illegal journalism.” His release and departure from Yemen, a great relief to all, came only after many calls to Yemeni officials, the journalist’s family and friends, and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.
Relationships within the diplomatic community
Ambassador Hansen states that relationships within the diplomatic community in Riyadh are cordial and supportive. The living conditions and restricted access to Saudi authorities draw them closer as a group. Hansen has found his colleagues to be great resources and good discussion partners.
Hansen finds the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Joseph Westphal, very approachable and down to earth when time allows them to meet. Ambassador Westphal is quite busy, given the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and the number of people traveling between the two countries.
A long career
Rolf Willy Hansen has served in Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1975. In addition to the ambassadorships to Syria and Saudi Arabia, his assignments have included service as: an advisor for Middle East Affairs, a senior advisor in the Section for Global Security Issues and Crisis Management, policy director and senior advisor in the Section for the Middle East and North Africa, consul general in Hong Kong and Macau, and, as previously stated, consul general in Minneapolis.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 16, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.