A Swiss parliamentary delegation paid a special visit to the Gulf region in May ahead of the upcoming abolition of a 5% tax on Swiss products imported into Gulf states. Are these steps signs of improving economic relations between the two sides?
In May the seven-member delegation met with a number of major Qatari businessmen, including the head of the family-owned, diversified Alfardan Group, Hussein Alfardan, at the home of Martin Aeschbacher, the Swiss ambassador to Doha.
The delegation was not large and the visit was not official, but the number of Rolls Royces and the level of attendance at the scene clearly indicated that the Qataris are interested in strengthening economic cooperation with Switzerland. From this angle, it can be said that the visit, which was of a reconnaissance nature, achieved its essential goal.
The visit was limited to Dubai and Doha because the members of the delegation had to return for the summer session of parliament. It included three members of the Senate and four from the House of Representatives, including two representatives to the Council of Europe.
Putting the visit in context, Senator Urs Schwaller told swissinfo.ch that it came as part of moves agreed five years ago between the Senate and House of Representatives to arrange special trips for Swiss parliamentarians to several regions in the world, including Iran and the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
The delegation members
Senator Urs Schwaller (Christian Democrats)
Senator Pirmin Bischof (Christian Democrats), member of the Senate’s Committee for Economic Affairs and Taxation, Legislative Committee, and Foreign Affairs Committee
Ruedi Noser (Radicals), member of the House of Representatives and President of the House’s Committee for Economic Affairs and Taxation
Viola Amherd (Christian Democrats), member of the House of Representative’s Legislative Committee
Doris Fiala (Radicals), member of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee
Rolf Schweiger, former Senator and previous member of the Senate’s Economic Affairs and Legal Affairs committees
Christian Miesch, former member of the House of Representatives
Exploring new regions
With the recent restrictions on Swiss banks in Europe and the US, Schwaller said the delegates asked themselves: “Why don’t we go and explore new regions?”
The Gulf is particularly interesting as on July 1, 2014, the International Free Trade Agreement (IFTA) signed by EU member states and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, often referred to as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), will come into force.
The agreement was signed in June 2009 by Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and the six GCC countries. After years of negotiations and parliamentary debates, ratification of the agreement was completed by the ten countries’ legislative assemblies a few weeks ago.
Ambassador Claudio Fischer, parliament's head of international relations, previously told swissinfo.ch: “There are no rules that [members of parliament] must comply with when they go on special visits abroad. At the personal level, any MP is not different from any other citizen. Also, [in this case] the MP does not represent parliament or a department affiliated to it.”
However, Schwaller told swissinfo.ch in Doha that Swiss Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann would visit the Gulf region soon to put the framework free trade agreement on track so that it can take effect as of July 1.
Schwaller pointed out that the businessmen and economic groups that knew the contents of the agreement considered it a good pact, stressing that Switzerland needs to develop a strategic vision for its interests in the region.
“Apart from the EU, and the US, which undoubtedly has big interests in the Gulf, we should know how the Gulf people think, practically,” he said.
“We've received positive feedback on our meetings in Dubai and Doha, particularly as we focused during these meetings on the future,” Schwaller added.
Benefiting from Swiss expertise
In the meantime, other members of the delegation told swissinfo.ch that they had met with representatives of local banks and production companies in Dubai and Doha.
“We even had discussions with an owner of a Swiss chocolate factory in the Gulf. We also came to understand the big opportunities for investment in the two fields of environmental protection and infrastructure, through benefiting from Swiss expertise in these two areas.”
For his part, Schwaller said: “We are a small country and it is important for us to know how the others handle the problems they face. For example, I admired the type of architectural engineering in the Gulf that responds to the cultural, social and climatic characteristics of the region.”
“We have ... made some blunders in the past. Therefore, it is important that we give others the opportunity to benefit from our experience.”
Schwaller stressed that awarding Qatar the opportunity to host the football World Cup in 2022 should “form an occasion for developing relations with Switzerland in various fields”.
Back in Switzerland, the trip to Dubai and Doha has not raised the flurry of questions and criticism a similar visit by parliamentarians to Tehran caused in April. There are two reasons for this. First, Swiss-Gulf relations are untarnished. Second, the Gulf does not trigger the same sensitivity that shrouds the Iranian dossier, particularly the nuclear side of it.
The visit to Doha and Dubai can be seen as paving the way for the implementation of the free trade agreement.
Opportunities for Swiss banks to strengthen dealings with the Gulf states could help to offset any potential negative impact of the decisions forced by the US and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, such as the automatic exchange of bank information.
In this sense, this special visit – part of what is called “parliamentary diplomacy” – is one of the ways that members of parliament can help formulate foreign policy, and is a growing phenomenon in the Swiss political system.
By Rachid Khechana in Doha, Qatar, swissinfo.ch
(Adapted from Arabic by Muhammad Shokry)