King opens doors for ‘Uncle Scrooge’

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Norway’s monarch, who turns 82 on Thursday, shared some candid thoughts with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week on his years of leading Norwegian business delegations on state visits around the world. King Harald V accepted the label of “door-opener” long ago, but now notes that Norway has become so wealthy itself, that it’s attracting investors and business delegations as well.

King Harald V arriving in China last year. Right behind him, Queen Sonja, who most always travels with him. King Harald believes that’s helped Norway promote gender equality. PHOTO: Kongehuset/NTB Scanpix

“We’ve become like Uncle Scrooge (in Disney’s Donald Duck comics), a country with lots of money,” King Harald told DN over the weekend in an exclusive interview. “We have become wealthier than we ever could have thought. It’s made us attractive for many, since they want our Oil Fund to invest in them.”

He didn’t elaborate on whether Norway has become greedy like Scrooge (called Ønkel Skrue in Norwegian). The monarch carefully steered away from political issues like whether Norway should offer refuge to more asylum seekers, spend more on Norway’s own defense or boost the country’s foreign aid budget.

The monarch did share, however, how he first became fully aware that Norway had become wealthy on petroleum after oil and gas was discovered on the Norwegian Continental Shelf 50 years ago, in 1969: “I’d been at an oil exhibition in Houston several times, right from the start of the oil adventure, and it hit me the last time I was there, several years ago, and saw all the exhibits. Then I said to the Norwegian exhibitors, ‘my goodness, we’re doing this ourselves now.’ That’s when I discovered we had become an oil nation.”

For better or worse, given all the debate at present over the carbon emissions generated by oil and how Norway contributes to climate change while also trying to halt it. The Norwegian monarch isn’t allowed to offer political opinions, but he did defend his trips and state visits to some controversial countries, most recently China. Many believe Norway has caved into China for the sake of boosting trade, and consciously overlooks China’s human rights abuses and, most recently, internment of minorities and massive surveillance of the Chinese population.

The king and Crown Prince Haakon (left, at the opening of Parliament) have faced criticism over some of their trips, and warnings against getting too close to business and commercial interests. PHOTO: Stortinget

King Harald thinks China has been the most interesting, and he’s visited once a decade since 1985. “The first time, everyone still walked around in Mao clothing and walked on the streets of Beijing,” he told DN. “The second time only half the people wore Mao clothing and most were bicycling. The last time no one used Mao clothing and they drove around in Mercedes. That can show the development of China during the past 30 years.”

He sees no problem with trying to stay friendly with China and its government, not least after the end of a six-year diplomatic freeze. “It’s seldom wrong to speak with folks,” King Harald said. “Whether it has any effect, I can’t say, but dialogue is important. We are a small country and need to be friends with everyone.”

He and Queen Sonja will be heading for Chile at the end of next month, a trip that’s unlikely to stir much controversy. He’ll be leading a business delegation once again, just like he has on many other state visits that can assemble industry and business leaders in the host country.

King Harald received red carpet treatment during a trip to Myanmar in 2014, another country that’s been causing more concern since. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Frode Overland Andersen

King Harald’s “business trips” started when he was still crown prince. He visited Brazil, Canada, Finland and Iceland in the 1960s, and he thought it was among the most interesting things he could do as crown prince. “They (the business delegation traveling with him) thought it was fine that a royal was along, because then it was easier to meet the people they wanted to, like ministers and important industry officials,” King Harald said.

In the 1970s, his trips went to Australia, Japan and Mexico. He admits he was warned not to get too close to the business leaders, by his father King Olav among others. Politicians on the left didn’t want the king to get too close to commercial players either. By the 1990s, though, the royals were criticized for not making enough trips with business delegations, and that King Carl Gustaf was doing a better job of opening doors for Swedish business.

King Harald simply relaxing on a trip to the Amazon that wasn’t official, but arranged because of his interest in experiencing the rain forest. PHOTO: Rainforest Foundation Norway / ISA Brazil

So trips have continued, and mostly been popular, but critics haven’t gone entirely quiet. They still warn about official visits to “problematic” countries including China, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. King Harald’s son, Crown Prince Haakon, was also criticized for a trip he made to Azerbaijan in 2011. He countered his critics later.

“The Royal Family is not apolitical,” argues Kari Elisabeth Kaski, deputy leader of the Socialist Left party (SV). She told DN that “they are political people who have political power. Even though they’re on assignment for the government, this type of representation should rather be made by elected officials and elected government.”

King Harald has only caught some direct criticism himself a few times, when he allowed the wealthy founder of the former RIMI grocery store chain, Stein Erik Hagen, to buy a horse for his daughter, Princess Martha Louise, and ran into some conflicts over it. The king claimed he couldn’t afford a horse or the process involved for her to try to compete in the equestrian portion of the Olympics. Nor, he claimed, could he afford to buy and maintain a sail boat he wanted and needed to win international races, so he accepted the business community’s gift of his Fram X sailboat when he turned 50, and solicited business sponsors to operate it.

He confirmed to DN that the boat and sponsors were “a direct result” of the job he’d done over the years for business delegations, but argued that sport was involved in both cases. He claimed it’s “completely normal” for all athletes who compete at the highest levels to accept sponsorships. “It would have been unfair if I couldn’t do the same,” he told DN.

Asked whether it didn’t sound strange that the king couldn’t afford to buy a horse, King Harald merely replied, “Yeah,” but claimed it was true.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund