Clarksville, TN – A few weeks ago, I was extremely honored to be asked to represent Clarksville on an economic development and cultural exchange trip to Saudi Arabia. The trip was organized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and was fully funded by the Saudi Arabian government.
It was not funded by the taxpayers in any way. This is the fifth year that select U.S. mayors have been invited to Saudi Arabia. I was so pleased that Clarksville was selected as one of the represented cities because I believe it shows that our reputation as a growing and vibrant city is being recognized around the country and now around the world.
We live in a global economy. There’s no question about that. Our economic development team has done a tremendous job of pursuing American companies seeking to relocate to Clarksville and I fully support our efforts to continue to do that.
But with the emerging global economy, I believe it’s in our best interest to both learn what other countries are looking for and make sure they know what Clarksville has to offer. Like any other business venture, the place to start is by building relationships and this mission gave us the opportunity to do that.
One of the most important things I learned on this mission is that we need to dispel some myths about Saudi Arabia. For example, women are a major part of the workforce in every industry throughout the Saudi economy. There are women engineers and accountants as well as retail clerks and administrators. The Saudi government has also just established its first co-ed university, which I had the opportunity to visit. We also visited two women’s colleges and it was clear to me that education for women is as important as education for men in the country.
The Saudi government is so committed to higher education, in fact, that they provide 60,000 – 80,000 full college scholarships to students every year, most of which fund education in the United States. I have already begun to have conversations with the Ambassador and other government officials to make sure that Austin Peay State University is on their list of approved colleges. I believe that Austin Peay offers programs that will be extremely interesting to their students as the Saudi government changes and I am committed to making sure that they include Clarksville as a destination city for continuing their education.
I also learned that beginning in 2014, open elections will be held for the first time in Saudi Arabia. Although all government positions will not be elected, many will be and women will be able to vote and to run for office. In fact, we met several women who are already serving in appointed government roles today. The Saudi government is very interested in our system of elections and our campaigns and we spent some time talking over the similarities, differences and challenges they will face.
The Saudi economy is overwhelmingly based on their oil exports so the more they use internally, the less they have for export and revenues. To limit the effect of the increased demand for energy, they have invested a great deal of time, money and research into alternative-based energy resources and are particularly interested in solar energy. I had the opportunity to talk with several Saudi officials about Hemlock Semiconductor and the work being done in Clarksville.
An important part of a trip like this is to find common ground and we did. The U.S. Mayor’s delegation was very interested to know how the Saudi government handled issues like poverty (because it exists everywhere) and public-private partnerships (because they can work anywhere). We met members of the Chamber of Commerce in Jeddah. Interestingly, membership in their chamber is mandatory and as a result it boasts over 63,000 members. We toured housing projects to see how they provide for low-income citizens.
I also had the opportunity to see the developing “King Abdullah Economic City” where the government is literally building an entire city of the future to increase economic opportunity for investors, residents, service providers and workers. It was a terrific change for me to discuss ideas for Clarksville’s continued development and growth with the Saudi officials and other U.S. mayors who were there.
This opportunity also gave me a chance to foster a growing relationship with other cities in our country. I discovered, for example, that desalination is an important issue in some areas where accessible clean and fresh water is limited. Saudi Arabia hosts the largest desalination plants in the world. Obviously, that isn’t a problem in Clarksville with the river access we have.
By participating in these discussions, I was able to share what we have already learned and listen to discussions about what potential growth opportunities for Clarksville in this area.
I also recognize that our community is one of the most diverse in the State. Due in large part to the Fort Campbell community, Clarksville is home to people of very diverse backgrounds and traditions. This trip was important to me, too, because it gave me an opportunity to learn more about a culture and area that, quite frankly, I hadn’t had before.
I have always been, and will always be, an advocate for diversity in our community and our government and I believe that true diversity is based on respect and valuing our differences. Gaining a better understanding of the politics and culture of a leading Middle Eastern nation gave me a perspective that is difficult to gain otherwise.
Good leaders take every opportunity to learn. What I’ve learned in my discussions with mayors from around the country and leaders from around the globe is that we have so many troubling issues in common. We also have wonderful ideas about how to best address those issues. Sharing best practices, and discussing our continuing challenges, is an important tool in managing a growing city.
Discovering ways Clarksville can be more efficient, responsive and prosperous is my priority.