Saudi Arabia is an important partner for Switzerland because of its role in the global economy, in the Muslim world and in the Middle East region. In recent years, the two countries have fostered closer ties and improved the general conditions for their trade relations.
Bilateral relations Switzerland–Saudi Arabia
On 14 October 2020 the Federal Council adopted a specific strategy for the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA Strategy) for the 2021–24 period. It identifies five thematic priorities: peace, security and human rights; migration and protection of people in need; sustainable development; economic affairs, finance, science; and digitalisation and new technologies.
These priorities are weighted differently across the various regions and countries. In the Arabian Peninsula and Iran, priority thematic areas for Switzerland are regional stability and security, economic and financial cooperation, and sustainable natural resource management.
Switzerland also wishes to support the Gulf countries in their efforts to professionalise their international cooperation, especially with regard to South-South cooperation and compliance with international development standards in the areas of climate change, health and water management.
Switzerland's priorities in Saudi Arabia
The MENA Strategy 2021–24 identifies the following priorities for Switzerland in Saudi Arabia:
1. Peace, security and human rights
Switzerland is launching a regional initiative that aims to promote dialogue between the Arabian Peninsula states and Iran. Switzerland is also intensifying bilateral exchanges on international humanitarian law and human rights, with a focus on women, as well as on corporate responsibility, as part of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 reform programme.
2. Sustainable development
Switzerland takes advantage of Saudi Arabia's investments and presence in Africa and Asia to launch joint projects focused on sustainable technologies in third countries (South-South and trilateral cooperation). It supports the training of Saudi international cooperation specialists.
3. Economic affairs, finance and science
Using existing instruments, Switzerland is working to develop exchanges by bringing together Swiss and Saudi research institutes potentially interested in collaboration. Researchers who are citizens of Saudi Arabia can apply to the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) for Swiss Government Excellence Scholarships. Furthermore, SERI has designated the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland (HES-SO) as the Leading House for the Middle East and North Africa and commissioned it to develop scientific collaboration partnerships between Switzerland and the countries of the MENA region.
Saudi Arabia harbours a great deal of potential for Switzerland, partly because of its large market (Switzerland mainly exports pharmaceuticals, watches and gold), and partly because of the investment conditions, which have demonstrated positive trends since Saudi Arabia joined the WTO (2005) and launched far-reaching reforms. The country is currently Switzerland's second-largest trading partner in the Middle East (after the United Arab Emirates). Switzerland and Saudi Arabia are jointly striving to improve the general conditions for their trade relations by concluding bilateral agreements (agreements have already been concluded in the areas of free trade, investment protection and air traffic). In September 2020, the double taxation agreement with Saudi Arabia was ratified by the Swiss Parliament.
4. Digitalisation and new technologies
Switzerland is working to secure market access for its private sector. It is taking advantage of the opportunities offered by Saudi Arabia's diversification within the Vision 2030 programme by getting the Swiss private sector involved, including in the Saudi financial sector (including fintech).
Other areas of cooperation
Switzerland regularly participates in events to promote the French language as part of the International Day of La Francophonie and also the Italian culture week (Settimana della Lingua Italiana nel Mondo). It also organises various cultural events.
Swiss nationals in Saudia Arabia
In 2020, there were 400 Swiss citizens living in Saudi Arabia.
History of bilateral relations
Initial contact between Switzerland and the Arabian Peninsula predates the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In the 19th century, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt from Basel was one of the first Westerners to visit Mecca.
In 1927 Switzerland recognised the newly founded Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1956, the two countries established diplomatic relations.
Since 2017, Switzerland has had a protecting power mandate to represent Saudi Arabia's interests in Iran and vice versa.