By: Heidi PP, iF Magazine Editor in Chief
We have a truly exciting story to kick off 2023. The founder and president of the Bilateral Chamber of Commerce has graciously offered her story and the story of the Chamber and how it works to us as our cover and feature story. This is extra special as this Chamber was founded by Aidia Araissi 25 years ago when women CEOs were even more rare than they are today; and in the oil and gas field, they were facing a truly male dominated industry world wide. Just some checking on statistics turned up a scant 7% of the energy CEOs are women today. If you take the S&P 500, the percentage increases only slightly to a mere 6.8%. Aida Araissi was open to sharing her story of how she was able to accomplish creating the Bilateral Chamber of Commerce, acquiring an impressive advisory board and organizing trade missions taking Houston’s business and political leaders overseas and bringing business leaders and heads of state to Houston forging many partnerships over the past 20 plus years.
For this interview, Aida Araissi has invited us to be her guests at the beautiful office right off Allen Parkway.
Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us and to share what the Bilateral Chamber has done and future plans. Please tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Houston, my parents are naturalized citizens from Tunisia who immigrated to Houston in the 70’s. You have to understand that Houston back then felt a bit like Dubai. The energy industry was fueling a boom town feeling. There were construction cranes everywhere, it felt like every month there was a new skyscraper going up taller than the last one. There were infrastructure wonders like the Astrodome -the world’s first covered stadium. People would also flock to the Galleria Mall to take photos of people ice skating in July in the world’s first indoor skating rink. I remember as a little girl feeling like I was somewhere very exciting and very relevant.
You are the founder and CEO of the Bilateral Chamber. What is your mission for the Chamber?
The mission of the Bilateral Chamber is to advance economic development founded on the principles of mutual respect and understanding. In our industry, we refer to this as “commercial diplomacy”. In essence, we create forums where industry leaders, small business and government decision makers convene to discuss critical issues, challenges and opportunities in a boardroom style setting where frank insights and solutions are offered. We leverage the power of connections because it is at these human intersections where real deals are made and where profound relationships are created.
You must have a lot of success stories in your 25 years as a Bilateral Chamber. What in your opinion stands out as being impactful?
We have had many wins and successes; but I believe the most impactful one rose from the tragedy of September 11, 2001 (9/11). There already existed gaps in understanding and general knowledge about the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region prior to 2001. But the attack on the World Trade Center in NYC dealt a terrible blow to relations between the U.S. and MENA. Arab Americans and Muslim Americans endured this terrible period of feeling blamed by the actions of terrorists that didn’t represent their culture, religion or beliefs. People from the Arab world feared traveling to the U.S. because of horror stories of being profiled as terrorists and being placed in hours-long interviews in “secondary” arrival rooms at airports. It was a very tough time.
The Bilateral Chamber at that time was known as the Bilateral U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce and was primarily focused on the MENA region so we got the brunt of the nasty calls from angry and confused people that were looking to blame someone. But the angry calls didn’t last very long and were soon replaced by calls asking for more information about “why” did this happen. Was it the religion’s fault? Why do they hate us? How can we learn more?
That is when I realized that our programs had to focus on bringing people together so they could get to know each other as humans and realize how much we all have in common. I approached the Mayor’s office of Houston and suggested a Mayoral led trade mission to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t in my wildest dreams think this “ask” would result in a yes.
You have led more than a hundred trade missions. How did this mission impact the relationship between Houston and MENA? What profitable results came from it that led to other trade missions?
The historic trade mission in 2002, led by the Mayor of the fourth largest city in the U.S. who also happened to be the former police chief of NYC, Lee Brown, was the first official trip into Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar since the attack. We had a delegation of 30 plus people representing the Port, Airport, Texas Medical Center, large and small company executives. We were hosted at the leadership levels in each of these countries including former Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Makhtoum in Dubai, former Sheikh Zayed in Abu Dhabi and the former Emir of Qatar. The US Ambassadors in these three countries were thrilled to receive us. Everyone was waiting for a reason to re-engage diplomatically and have a reset in dialogue. By the way, there had never been a visit by a U.S. mayor to any of these places prior to our visit.
We signed port to port agreements with the then early developing Jebel Ali Port. We signed cooperation agreements with the civil aviation authorities of UAE and Qatar which led to a framework for Emirates Air and Qatar Air to fly directly into the U.S. with Houston being the first city after NYC. We had to keep it all very quiet because the media would have had a field day knowing that we were talking to “Arab” airlines to fly directly into U.S. airports after what had just happened less than six months prior.
It was the scariest thing I had ever done. I knew failure was not an option. I would definitely say that was the pinnacle of our achievements. After that,everything came easy.
The Bilateral Chamber has emphasized the relationship between Houston and MENA. Could you tell us a little more about this partnership?
The organization’s founding members were ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco. To have ExxonMobil in essence fund a start-up which is what we were in 1997 was an incredible honor and responsibility. The responsibility was taken very seriously. We knew if we held an event at which that logo was included, we had to do a good job or risk losing the relationship for good.
The watershed moment that ExxonMobil offered us was the opportunity to host a delegation from the State of Qatar in 1999. You have to understand, at that time no one really knew anything about Qatar and what Qatar would soon become. Our assignment was to organize a business forum for the Minister of Petroleum and several of his key Qatar Petroleum CEOs and invite other potential stakeholders to learn about the upcoming projects, concessions they wished to promote.
The difference we made was in addition to inviting people from the energy sector, we invited key civic leaders from other sectors to meet the Minister to get to know him and hear what his vision was for his country. This is when I was realizing the very simple power of connecting people informally. It’s one thing to hear a speech but when you convene around a table, share a meal, discuss life,that’s when the magic happens.
The relationships that ExxonMobil offered us to develop in Qatar with this one event held in Houston, resulted in numerous subsequent visits on behalf of what later became the Qatar Foundation, the Qatar Science & Technology Park and most significantly the Qatar Community College. ExxonMobil sponsored our TEACH Mission (Teachers Educating Across Cultures in Harmony) which included a fellow from the Houston Community College. This adjunct professor, upon seeing the impressive but empty (at that time 2008) campuses of universities in Qatar Foundation, suggested a solution. He highlighted the role that community colleges play in bridging the knowledge gap between high school and college. He suggested that Qatar may consider that solution. The result: Houston’s HCC sent a delegation to Qatar which resulted in establishing the first community college anywhere in the region now graduating thousands of students a year. ExxonMobil in my view was the seed that yielded this and many many other impacts. I could go on for a very long time. 25 years is a lot to reflect back on.
I can see that the Bilateral Chamber also promotes cultural exchanges as well as business and trade. Your organization creates entire series and campaigns. Can you tell us some things we may expect in 2023?
I can summarize 2023 with two initiatives; one is Guyana and the other is Methane Abatement. With ExxonMobil’s support,we aim to work with Guyana as we did 20 years ago in Qatar to contribute to institutional relationships between Houston, the GCC and Guyana. We are uniquely positioned to provide a network of best practices and learnings from stakeholders from all three regions. We want Guyana to succeed and we see lots of opportunity for cross pollination between regions.
With regard to Methane Abatement, we were recently awarded the worldwide methane abatement series contract with the U.S. Trade & Development Agency which will comprise 15 countries on a series of reverse trade missions to meet energy industry stakeholders that are tackling methane abatement and carbon capture issues with new solutions. It’s a very exciting project.
You have been a pioneer and have opened doors to women in business in countries where that was not at all popular when you founded your Bilateral Chamber. Please tell our readers a little about your experience with “diversity and inclusion.”
I founded a chamber focused on the Arab world at a time when there were no women chairing or running chambers in the Arab world, and there may have been women CEOs of chambers in the U.S., but I wasn’t aware of any.” The imposter syndrome was an overwhelming feeling that I was always fighting. I often asked male mentors to step forward as the “leaders” of the chamber and just let me get things done in the background. The credit or title of founder or CEO was one I shied away from for many years. There were a lot of male and female mentors including Linda Wuest, founder of the World Affairs Council in Houston, that encouraged me to lean into the role and step up to the podium metaphorically and literally. If it weren’t for role models like Linda, I might have eventually moved onto something else. Diversity at a company, an organization, in government is so important because we are reflections and inspirations for the next generation to pursue their own journeys and hopefully exceed our achievements. It’s good for society to engage and reflect all members of that society.
Today when I travel to the Middle East, there are women CEOs, women ministers, women pilots and even women astronauts. There is a Saudi woman astronaut right here in Houston training for a mission. Think about how she’s going to inspire young girls back home to literally and figuratively reach for the stars!
What advice would you give a woman today who is trying to become a CEO or start her own business in the energy sector.
There has never been a better time than today for women in the energy sector both here and in the Middle East. Energy companies have very robust recruiting and training programs aimed at women. The only thing slowing things down is the pipeline of graduates interested in engineering jobs in the energy business. I think with the movement towards the energy transition and the investments in renewable and carbon capture technologies, more young women and men will find renewed purpose in this sector. There is a lot of private equity money ready to be deployed towards climate friendly solutions for how we address our energy needs.
When did you decide to expand and reach out to include other nations in the Bilateral Chamber in addition to MENA?
It usually takes one of our partners. In 2014 Exxon Mobil approached us and expressed an interest in Mozambique and wanted us to do a series of programs focused on that country. We did it, and they were pleased. We started getting inquiries from Sub-Saharan Africa and we brought a delegation into the country from Ghana to 3 U.S. cities. We were then asked to do a partnership with a major conference in London focused on financing Sub-Saharan projects. Then we took a delegation of African ministers to Abu Dhabi, and before long, we had a Sub-Saharan Division in the Chamber. In the following year of the expanded international focus, through our good relationship with the United States Trade and Development Agency, we applied for and received one of 11 contract positions out of the hundreds who applied. We completed successful reverse trade missions; one from China, one from Egypt and one from Turkey. In that same year, we secured contracts for inbound trade missions from India, Indonesia, Viet Nam, the Philippines, Argentina, and Peru. Soon we had an Indo-Pacific Portfolio.
We officially went global in 2018 after 20 years of being the U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce.During that time,we strengthened and expanded our relationships with such world-renowned conferences as: ADIPEC, Arab Health, EGYPS, GASTECH,AND WEFTEC. The Chamber offered timely programming on Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Mozambique, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, Turkey, and the UAE. Special recognition and honors were given to T.H. Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston; T. H. Douglas Silliman, US Ambassador to Iraq; and Dr. Daniel Yergin, Vice Chairman of IHS Markit. It was a banner year despite the after effects of Hurricane Harvey.
How does one become a member of the Bilateral Chamber?
Membership is always preceded with a conversation to make sure expectations are managed. We consider our members as clients and we build a long term and evolving relationship with them ensuring that we are delivering value. Not everyone is a good fit for membership but everyone is invited to subscribe to our newsletter and encouraged to attend our public events.
It has been inspiring to talk with you. I look forward to working with you in the near future. Again, thank you for taking the time to share your experience and knowledge with us.
For our readers I would like to say anyone who wishes to become a member of the Chamber or do business with the MENA countries or Guyana may contact the Bilateral Chamber at 713-880-8168, www.bilateralchamber.org.