Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee has said his trip to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) yielded “fruitful results,” as his overseas charm offensive concluded on Friday.

Meanwhile, the deputy secretary for justice, who joined the trip, said Middle Eastern political and business figures did not ask about the Beijing-imposed security law, as they were not easily affected by “inaccurate or incorrect information.”

John Lee Dubai
Chief Executive John Lee and other officials met the press in Dubai on February 10, 2023. Photo: GovHK.

Meeting the press in Dubai on Friday morning, Lee said his week touring the two countries was about establishing friendships, promoting Hong Kong’s advantages, and creating opportunities.

Lee said that officials from Hong Kong and the two countries had signed 13 memoranda of understanding, or letters of intent, detailing cooperation on information technology, business, professional services, logistics and other areas.

“The Hong Kong government and the Saudi Arabia government have agreed to start our negotiation about protection and promotion of investment agreement, so that is a very good result between the two governments,” Lee said.

john lee middle east
Chief Executive John Lee has been touring the Middle East in a charm offensive to win back business and attract investors. Photo: GovHK.

If successful, Saudi Arabia will become the 23rd foreign economy to enact such investment agreements with Hong Kong.

In addition, Lee said the city has also agreed to discuss a green and sustainable financing cooperation with the UAE.

When asked about his bid to persuade Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil giant Aramco to list on Hong Kong’s stock exchange, Lee said he introduced the city’s strengths in finance as well as its economic potentials to the world’s largest oil producer.

Horace Cheung
Horace Cheung. File photo: LegCo.

“I’m very glad that the atmosphere was positive. And both [parties] agreed that we should continue close communication,” Lee added.

The chief executive added that he had also invited officials from three sovereign funds to visit Hong Kong in the future to consider investing.

Lee said the destination for his next visit will “likely be countries of ASEAN” – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He did not directly answer questions as to whether he had plans to visit the US or European countries.

No security law questions

At a separate press briefing on Friday, the Deputy Secretary for Justice Horace Cheung, who travelled with Lee, said none of the government officials or business representatives he met over the recent days had asked about Hong Kong’s national security law.

“I feel that our friends in Middle East countries are capable of making independent and objective judgements. They are not easily swayed by inaccurate or incorrect information.” Cheung said.

The 2021 Human Rights Measurement Initiative said Saudi Arabia was among the most disempowering and unsafe countries for state abuses, with a poor record on torture, execution, extrajudicial killing, disappearance, arbitrary arrest and the death penalty. Meanwhile, NGO Amnesty International, in 2021, said that the AUE commits serious rights violations “including arbitrary detention, cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees, suppression of freedom of expression, and violation of the right to privacy.”

john lee middle east
Chief Executive John Lee has been touring the Middle East in a charm offensive to win back business and attract investors. Photo: GovHK.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

Mask mandate

During his overseas tour, Lee has repeatedly claimed that Hong Kong has no Covid-19 restrictions “whatsoever.” It is despite visitors and residents still facing a HK$5,000 fine if they fail to wear a face mask in public.

On Friday, Lee said: “Different experts talked about different considerations and gave different suggestions on the timing, but the principle was clear – when we can be sure that the winter flu surge has passed, we will actively consider cancelling the mask mandate.”

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.