Over the past half century, Saudi Arabia has been the most important country for Taiwan’s Middle East diplomacy. The following interview with HE Dr. Ibrahim Chao (Hsi-lin Chao), Taiwan’s representative to the Kingdom from 2009 to 2012, sheds light on the contours of and recent developments in the bilateral relationship.
Prior to joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China, or Taiwan, Ibrahim Chao earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Shariah (Islamic Law) from the Umm al-Qura University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Since retiring from the diplomatic service, he has served as an advisor to the Chinese Muslim Association in Taipei.
What were the major goals of the Taipei Representative Office in Riyadh during the time that you served as the representative?
The most important goals were maintaining and strengthening bilateral relations; activating trade and investment exchanges; and protecting Taiwanese nationals [in the Kingdom] and providing assistance for their activities. During my term, our team made efforts to achieve those goals, and we witnessed good signs of the outcomes of our work.
Taiwan is home to over 20,000 Chinese Muslims and more than 40,000 expatriate Muslims. How would you describe the importance of Islam in Taiwanese–Saudi relations?
The role of culture and religion in contributing to the building of mutual trust among people cannot be neglected. Indeed, Taiwanese Muslims continue to contribute to the development and consolidation of the amicable relationship between Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. Both the Taiwanese authorities and Taiwanese people are aware of this positive role. They embrace the importance of protecting the Muslim minority in Taiwan through emphasizing Taiwanese Muslims’ role of cultural and religious cooperation both domestically and internationally―and not only with Saudi Arabia, but with the Islamic world as a whole.
Since the 1970s, Taiwan has played an important role in industrial diversification in Saudi Arabia. Do you expect more Taiwanese investments in the coming years, and if so, in what sectors?
It is clear that economic and commercial cooperation between Taiwan and Saudi Arabia will increase in the coming years. In the past several years, the Taiwanese government has been working to invigorate trade and investment exchanges between Taiwan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Recognizing the enormous size of Islamic markets, Taipei’s Cabinet Council set up a special committee charged with facilitating economic exchanges and boosting private investment and commercial relations with the GCC.
Building on this initiative, I foresee an increase in the volume of Taiwanese investments in the Kingdom. Although these investments may not be as large as previous ones in the petrochemical sector, such as Jubail Fertilizer, there are growing investment opportunities in the Kingdom for medium-sized foreign enterprises. This will probably encourage Taiwanese investors to consider setting up factories in many industrial sectors in Saudi Arabia.
Taiwanese firms might even do more to invest in and trade with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern economies. In order to exploit the potential, what must be done?
Some Taiwanese investors have hesitated to enter the Saudi and other GCC markets, the major reason being the recent global trend in which investors have headed to the gigantic Chinese market. The Chinese market’s highly attractive factors have drawn private Taiwanese firms, too.
This hesitancy on the part of Taiwanese investors may also be attributable to the media coverage of the security disruptions in the Middle East. In this vein, authorities and people in Taiwan and Saudi Arabia need to redouble their efforts to provide information and cultural activities aimed at Taiwanese nationals, as well as people in the rest of the world, that emphasize that Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states are not plagued by turmoil and, in fact, offer promising opportunities for carrying out commercial and investment projects.
Oil is an important pillar of Taiwanese–Saudi relations. How do you see the role of Saudi Arabia in addressing Taiwan’s energy needs?
A few years ago when I was in the Taiwanese government, Taiwan’s energy strategy focused on diversifying its sources of oil imports. Saudi oil accounted for nearly 30 percent of Taiwan’s total oil imports, and Saudi Arabia continues to be a major source of oil for Taiwan. Therefore, the energy dimension of Taiwan-Saudi relations is a fundamental component of the bilateral relationship.
Saudi Arabia and Taiwan have also been collaborating in fields such as R&D in renewable energy. Saudi officials have declared their intention to extend knowledge cooperation to other fields such as technical and vocational training. Is Taiwan prepared to reciprocate this interest?
Human resources development is in our mutual interest. It is purely a cultural and educational issue and should not be included in political disputes or disagreements. During my term in Riyadh, cooperation in the field of human resources development increased in a visible manner. Educational missions, particularly in technical education and vocational training, had fruitful outcomes. In addition, universities in Taiwan continue to welcome Saudi students who wish to pursue advanced study at postgraduate levels in Taiwan.
We have seen a political and economic thaw between Taiwan and mainland China since 2008. Has the improvement in these relations affected Taiwanese–Saudi relations?
Speaking from my own experiences, bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Taiwan are founded on a sound basis of mutual trust and common interests. Those in the government and people [in both countries] clearly understand the importance of protecting private bilateral interests and that those interests serve the private welfare of the two countries. No third party can interfere in or disturb those relations. The international community must recognize the importance of the principle of respecting bilateral exchange.
 Jubail Fertilizer is an equally owned joint venture between Taiwan Fertilizer and Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC). The project was created in December 1979 and came on stream in February 1983. It has the production capacity of 650,000 tons per annum of urea and 391,000 tons per annum of ammonia, and it also produces other petrochemical products.
 For instance, TECO Electric and Machinery opened a motor plant in Dammam in January 2012 in a joint venture with the Al-Quraish Group and the Shoaibi Group with the capacity of producing 400–600 units per year.
 According to Taiwan’s Bureau of Energy, Saudi Arabia supplied 35 percent of Taiwan’s total oil imports in 2013.
 In December 2008, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) granted a Global Research Partnership Award worth $5 million to the New Energy Center of the National Taiwan University for developing solar energy technology and assisting the research at KAUST in that field.
 “Saudi Arabia–Taiwan Relationship Built on Common Values,” The China Post, September 22, 2011.