Amr Moussa: Egypt is entering its third republic in difficult circumstances

File photo of Amr Moussa from Thursday, June 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
File photo of Amr Moussa from Thursday, June 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
File photo of Amr Moussa taken on Thursday, June 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—As president-elect Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi prepares to take the helm of Egypt’s government, Egyptians face a long period of uncertainty as the country’s new leadership attempts to turn their hopes for the revival Egypt’s struggling economy and the entrenchment of democratic values into reality.

Asharq Al-Awsat’s Editor-in-Chief spoke with one of the men best placed to comment on Egypt’s political scene and its future: Amr Moussa, a veteran Egyptian statesman who has served as both foreign minister and head of the 2014 constitution-drafting committee, as well as secretary-general of the Arab League.

Asharq Al-Awsat: What is the main priority for the next Egyptian president: security or the economy?

Amr Moussa: It is clear that the agenda contains a lot of topics related to achieving security, reform and development. There is more than one priority at a time, because Egypt has become very imbalanced. Rebuilding is a comprehensive task, and there are multiple priorities. These priorities are political and economic, and they concern development and social justice. There are domestic priorities, as well as regional and international priorities.

Certainly the new president’s agenda will be packed. I trust that Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is aware of this, and I imagine that he will be quite busy. A lot also depends on the team that will implement and follow up on this. Of course, there will be a number of teams, not just one.

Q: The president-elect spoke about his priorities and his future work agenda. Will the team that works with the president also play a large role in this?

By himself, the president cannot achieve what he wants or what we want. The task required of him is to lead and manage the institutions of the state from different angles, according to his constitutional powers, with a focus on comprehensive reform. This is very important, because Egypt cannot afford to continue going in the direction it was going. The country underwent an intense ordeal, primarily because of the poor governance that was compounded by government after government. For a long time, era after era, we have seen nothing but poor governance, with predominantly negative results. It is therefore necessary to achieve good governance and capable management.

Egypt, in reality, begins its third republic under difficult circumstances. This is not the republic of Muhammad Naguib or Gamal Abdel Nasser or Anwar Sadat, and certainly not the republic of Mohamed Mursi. It is the third republic, with a radically different constitution, in a different time, facing different problems, and dealing with these problems in a different way.

Q: Is the new constitution a big step forward for Egypt?

Yes, it is a very big step, and we must work on its application and implementation. This is what we expect from the next parliament. It will issue supplementary laws and implement the directives and obligations of the constitutions. The constitution does not apply itself. Judges apply the law, and the law follows and applies the principles of the constitution.

There is a lot of momentum right now. The people have changed and woken up, and they will not accept a president or leader who strays from their demands. Despite the difficult challenges, we want the third republic to succeed. The people are waiting, but they know what they want and where they want to go. The failure of the previous government led to increased poverty, disrupted services and general decline.

What we are now witnessing is a different matter entirely. The masses have expressed their love for and placed their trust in Field Marshal Sisi. Citizens saw in him a man of the people, and his stand with them against the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule has been critical. He means to follow through on his intention to rebuild, because Egypt has reached a terrible state in various fields. Here, the new president and the new government must deal appropriately with the fields of agriculture, industry, tourism, energy, education and health care. The government must deal with all of this and more, but I do not think that this is impossible. What is required is good governance. We have specialists in every field, a sound plan, determination, and a strong will. This is why we can achieve success on the ground. If not, there will be difficult repercussions.

Q: How could Egypt achieve economic growth, in light of the political transformations taking place? Is it possible to create a culture of active party politics while also focusing on reviving the economy, or do compromises need to be made?

First, the issue of reviving the economy is also political. The action plans will follow the implementation of the president and the government. There are many projects we can take by way of example. We can think of the Suez Canal as one example of the creation of a major industrial area that includes maintenance, shipbuilding, a free trade zone, land reclamation, and a rise in tourism. All of this opens up numerous possibilities. If all of this were to be accomplished, people would flock to the Suez Canal to work and live. Suez Canal cities are currently not equipped for such an influx, and they would require the construction of cities, villages, factories, farms and resorts. This move would also include projects in contracting, construction, agriculture and industry. This plan would attract many people [to this area], while it also meets the standards and regulations of the 21st century, not to mention Western ideas, including a renewable solar energy project in the western desert. All of this is present in the president-elect’s program.

Additionally, the borders of the governorates of Upper Egypt are also set to change.
Luxor, for example, has focused on tourism. This governorate will now be expanded by several kilometers to include more territory, allowing it to establish various projects. This opens up various prospects. What is needed is proper management. The constitution speaks about new types of management, with elections at every level of governance—from village committees to municipal elections to governorate elections. This radical change, if successfully achieved, will put Egypt on a completely different path. In terms of sheer numbers, there will be approximately 54,000 municipal council seats up for grabs; additionally, according to the constitution, 25 percent of those will be reserved for women. A similar proportion will be allocated for young people aged under 30, and there are quotas for workers, Christians, farmers and others.

So, any leader could invest in all of these activities and leaderships. This would create economic, socia, and political momentum, as well as new policies that will be implemented through the parliament. The discussion of certain problems—economic or otherwise—in parliament will necessarily create new [political] trends, whether for or against the government. I imagine that the political schools will be composed from within parliament.

Q: You mentioned that the constitution confirms the restoration of Egypt’s “spirit.” What do you mean by this?

The constitution truly does restore the spirit of Egypt. The principles of Islamic law serve as the basis for legislation, while Christian and Jewish canons regulate the conditions for those communities. The constitution affirms that Egypt is part of both the Arab world and the African continent. It also sets forth the rights and freedoms of citizens, determines the powers of state institutions, and introduces the concept of decentralization. It not only restores the spirit of Egypt, but also draws up its future.

Q: Has Egypt moved backwards because of the circumstances of the last three years?

No, this was not because of these circumstances. It has moved backwards because of an incorrect assessment of the country’s circumstances. The downward spiral began at the beginning of this century and reached its lowest point over the past five years. President Mubarak’s approach at the time was in accordance with the Arab proverb that goes, ‘If the breeze from an open door allows a draft in, shut it and relax.’

The Middle East was boiling over with certain developments. From those years came the theory of creative chaos, and there was talk of a new Middle East. Then social networking movements became active, and links formed with global networks. The result was, as we have seen, a shutting off from and avoidance of the winds of change, and what started as a mild breeze grew into gale-force winds. Egypt cannot afford to close the door on itself.

Q: The Arab League, which you previously led, was once more respected. There have been many conversations about reforming the Arab League, but have we seen any such reforms?

Without prejudice to the Arab League, it is important to talk about the Arab Movement for Change, or what the West has dubbed the “Arab Spring,” as this is bound to produce changes in the regional system. We must try to find the most effective system for our region. During my recent visit to Washington, a call for change was made, and I spoke about this with everybody that I met. I have said publically that the time of Sykes–Picot is over and that one [foreign] minister—or even two or five—will not be able to determine the fate of the Middle East, because a revolution rejecting this would take place. For example, neither Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov or US Secretary of State John Kerry cannot decide the fate of the Middle East, as Sykes and Picot did in 1914. This should be for us—the Arabs—to decide.

Q: There is more than one civil war in the region, and it is difficult to agree to take action and prevent these wars because the differences are so firmly rooted. What is your position on this?

There are many differences of opinion, but by sitting together within the framework of the Arab League, it is possible to resolve at least some of them. The League previously met here, in my house, when I was its secretary-general, and we reached solutions for some of the issues and problems in the Arab world through discussion and understanding the limits and methods of our work. This requires that we work together to create a new regional order, to prepare ideas, possibilities and plans, and to agree on a common structure.

There are also new elements that must be considered. First, Morocco is no longer a younger brother. We should not forget the role it played in the changes that have occurred and that continue to occur in Tunisia and Libya. I mean it when I say that the opinion of Morocco must be taken seriously.

Second, we must accept a diversity that accommodates Berbers, Kurds, Christians and different Islamic sects. We need to move beyond the scope of Arab nationalism in its traditional, romantic sense. The Arab world must benefit from its diversity.

Third, we need to be aware of the causes of underdevelopment, how to properly manage certain issues, and what different issues affect society. First and foremost, we need a system of education that provides us with cadres that are suited for our current state of development, particularly as education is linked to the economy and can provide us with commodities that are globally competitive.

Fourth, we need democracy. We need to abolish the idea of bequeathal [of power] once and for all and seriously engage with democracy in a broad, sensible and sophisticated way.

Q: This brings us to the case of Syria, and the disputes over whether reconciliation needs to be imposed. What is your view?

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the Syrian case, and much has already been lost.

Q: Because of the nature of your work, you have connections to the late Syrian president, Hafez Al-Assad, and to Syria itself. How do you see things today?

Syria is a dynamo of pan-Arabism, and its fall, division or destruction would adversely affect the present and future of the Arab region. Here, democracy is also important, because without it, the problems will remain in place indefinitely. I think the current approach is not working, and the deceptive Geneva [peace talks] approach does not benefit Syria either. The solution must be based out of, and directed by, the region.

Q: Do you think there could be a “model” law or constitution that would guarantee the people’s needs and interests, in light of the complex realities that have been imposed on the drafting of constitutions and laws?

Possibly. But we should trust in the people who have grown angry and who revolted. We saw the Muslim Brotherhood model, which focused only on its own priorities. They ruled at the expense of the people and the poor, and the people grew angry and brought down the Brotherhood’s regime. There is no ideal, but there is reality. And the reality is that the people can no longer afford poor governance, where their needs are ignored and they are humiliated and ridiculed. From here, we move forward with the strength of our constitution’s guarantees. Whoever says we will return to the past experiences of so and so is wrong, because we are in a new era. We cannot live in the standards of the 20th century. We must live in this century. There will be no return to any previous regime. The previous regimes failed, so how could we go back to them once again?

Q: What about support for the Egyptian economy and the experience of others, particularly the experience of Portugal, which President-elect Sisi spoke about in our recent interview with him? What about the breadth of powers of the prime minister?

The constitution limits the powers of the prime minister. He is a partner in policymaking and supervises its implementation. There is no space for executive discretion. The president is the leader and director of the government. As for the government, it is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the president’s decisions. If we must choose an example or model for our reconstruction, it would be, in my opinion, Brazil, and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Q: Does this include Brazil’s substantial monetary reform package?

I mean political democracy and economic freedom. President Lula is a meticulous observer, which is needed to achieve both economic development and social justice. This is the theory of President Lula.

Q: The term khaskhasa, or privatization, has become increasingly negative in the Arab world. What is your view?

Yes, the word khaskhasa is strange. However, 75 percent of the Egyptian economy is in the private sector. From that angle, we can discuss the word and its meaning. For three years, from 2011 to 2013, the wheels of production stopped and the national reserve was spent. But industries continued to carry out private-sector work, comprising a significant portion of employment, income and production—in the context of small and medium enterprises, as well as a few large projects.

Q: Are you optimistic?

My answer is always that I have a little bit of optimism. We have significant problems ahead of us, but the task of reform and reconstruction is possible.

Q: What about the topic of youth in the constitution, and their participation in the movement of change in the Arab world?

The constitution, as I mentioned before, gives young people up to 25 percent of seats in local and governorate councils. This means about 14,000 seats. This is a large figure, and the youth have already entered into the political process. According to the draft parliamentary election law, each parliamentary list will include three women, three Christians, two youth, one person with disabilities, and one expatriate. The youth have been guaranteed seats in the legislative process. This is in addition to the training policy for those in positions of power. And, of course, guaranteeing quality education and a broad base of knowledge is important.

Q: What is your view of these quotas? Are they compatible with the democratic process?

This is a partial quota system, limited to 120 seats in the upcoming parliament. The goal is to maintain a minimum level of representation for women and youth, but the freedom to elect [additional] women into parliament remains in place. The participation of women and youth will contribute to the expertise of the parliament, and accordingly their participation in new parties and alliances will rise. Thus, the numbers of women and young people participating in politics and development will increase, and with it, the subject of the quota will develop.

Q: Did the Muslim Brotherhood push through their candidates in the past, and will they do it again this time?

Egyptian society is very angry at the Brotherhood for their poor rule and their violent policies. The Brotherhood should try to take advantage of the new constitutional situation. The new constitution differs from their constitution, which isolated hundreds of political figures and former regime officials. The 2014 constitution, on the other hand, does not isolate anyone, and the door is open for all to participate in the political process. But the Brotherhood must recognize this constitution, stop their violent practices, and announce that they recognize the new legitimacy.

Q: How will Islamists in Egypt deal with the situation, given the presence of other Islamist regimes in the region?

The Islamists came to power in Egypt but failed within a single year. No one did this to them; they did this to themselves. This must be taken into account. They were incompetent and unintelligent rulers. Their management was poor, and they fell from power. This fall drastically affects their position, and a return is not possible. It may take years, or even decades, for them to adjust their thinking, to understand that when a faction comes to power, it must work to achieve the interests and respect of the people, and to implement democracy. This applies to everyone.

Q: How will President-elect Sisi deal with countries that took a negative position on what happened in Egypt?

He completely understands the domestic, regional, and international situation. He knows that there is a possibility to turn a new page and achieve the requirements of the 21st century. This is the third republic, and more than ever before it requires that we turn a corner from the previous era. This is what I said in the United States: We need a new framework for Egyptian relations with international actors, particularly the United States. Egypt cannot allow its policies to be dictated to them by foreign powers over the phone—this is based on Egyptian self-respect. I do not see Sisi as one to say “yes, sir” to anyone. He will discuss the topic, return to the state institutions, and he might say “yes” if he feels the policy is acceptable. In this way, Egypt has implemented the foundations of a democratic system.

Q: What about relations with Qatar and Turkey?

I ask Qatar and Turkey to open a new page in their relations with Egypt. There is a new republic in Egypt. This will take a lot of work to build, and there will not be room for space for turning back the page.

Q: What about creating political leaders and providing them with expertise? Previously, diplomats were seen as distinctive in this field.

In order to produce a statesman, one requires quality education and the ability to continually access and monitor developments. From there, quality practice comes into the government or decision-making centers.

A statesman is conscious of the era in which he lives. He is sensitive to its demands, and he is not torn by a desire to return to a previous era, since the choice is simple. History does not return, but it may sometimes repeat itself, though in different forms. A political leader is a man of the times and not a man of the past.

Sisi: Egypt needs “hard work, effort and hope”

Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat Editor-in-Chief Dr. Adel Al Toraifi in Cairo on May 23, 2014. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat Editor-in-Chief Dr. Adel Al Toraifi in Cairo on May 23, 2014. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat Editor-in-Chief Dr. Adel Al Toraifi in Cairo on May 23, 2014. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—In October 2013, the situation in Egypt—with all its political complexities, social problems and security risks—was clear to see, in the faces of everyone on the streets and the countenance of people going about their daily business. Everywhere you went, from a humble market to a hotel frequented by businessmen and foreigners, the conversation was the same, anxious and pessimistic about the Egyptian people’s shattered dreams and the difficulty of finding a way forward.

Today, Cairo is a different city. Traffic moves easily through the streets of a capital city now enjoying a sense of stability and calm. Business carries on easily, as it used to. The smells, sights and sounds have returned to how they have been for decades, if not centuries. Cairo—the heart of Egypt—is comfortably normal.

Even the Cairenes themselves have changed. They carry themselves more comfortably on the way to work or school. Their preoccupations have changed, at least to some extent. Their faces have begun to reflect their sense of hope for the future, and the conversations you hear in the Egyptian vernacular are now pervaded by a sense of stability.

Still, when you talk to businessmen you get a sense of how acute is the economic crisis that is choking the country. True, the Egyptian currency has shown considerable strength and stability in the face of the successive waves of disruption that have hit Egypt and its economy. But still, today the concerns of businessmen are tempered by honestly held hopes of economic recovery after the next president takes office.

Even more, it is clear that everyone in this magnificent city holds hopes for the elections this year, both presidential and legislative. They feel the forthcoming parliamentary elections will mark a democratic turning point for Egypt, putting to rest their country’s woes and ushering in an era of security and stability in a country that still suffers from violence, even terrorism.

We met one of Egypt’s presidential candidates in a new, but still crowded, part of Cairo, Nasr City, in a quiet retreat overlooking the last resting place of Egypt’s Unknown Soldier—a pyramid-shaped monument constructed on the order of President Sadat in 1974 in honor of those Egyptians and Arabs who lost their lives in the October War the year before. It also eventually became Sadat’s final resting place, after he was assassinated in 1981.

Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the former defense minister, was busy and surrounded by journalists—it was the last day of the campaign, and they all wanted one last comment—but he gave Asharq Al-Awsat much of his time. His mannerisms may be somewhat difficult to translate into words printed on paper, but he struck me as a modest person who deals with others in a simple and straightforward manner. That minimalism of action also comes out when he delivers an argument, which he does clearly and succinctly. He clearly knows what must be done, both by himself and by others. And through all of this—indeed, through all of Egypt’s trying times since the events of last summer—he remains completely honest, even when addressing the most sensitive issues.

Asharq Al-Awsat: The region has witnessed several popular uprisings over the past three years. Is this the result of social transformation or a shift in the regional balance of power?

Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi: There can be no doubt that social transformation took place as a result of political and economic changes in more than one country, and this resulted in what we see today. We must also not ignore the presence of regional transformation that happened as a result of these revolutions and changes. In reality, there are those who are trying to change the balance of power to suit their own interests and harm the interests of others. We have seen significant shifts in Egypt, and there were those who were trying to harm the national interests; however, we were able to overcome all of this thanks to the will of the people. For Egypt to return to its natural position, we need a lot of hard work and effort, as well as some hope.

Everybody has confidence in the future, but we will not achieve what we are aspiring to except through serious work on all levels. Real improvement will only take place through serious and conscience regional cooperation. As for the balance of power, I believe that the real balancing force will be the presence of a vital, strong and wise power in the region—here in Egypt the rest of the Arab world.

Q: In Libya, there are armed confrontations between forces affiliated to the former Libyan military and Islamist militias. What is your view about what is happening in the country?

Unfortunately, over the past two years Libya has become a focus for the assembly of armed and extremist militias. The Libyan people took to the streets to change the former regime and to participate in creating the future and establish a state of institutions—a civil state in which everybody participates. However, as a result of the presence of these militias violence and arms have prevailed, and Libya has become a rallying point for terrorist elements.

The Europeans should have finished what they started following the collapse of the former regime, confiscating weapons to preserve the security and safety of the country. I do not think anybody could have objected to that. As for Egypt, there has been a crucial decision and clear message that we will not allow any terrorist operation against our country to take place from Libyan territory.

Q: And if the situation in Libya continues as it is?

After what happened in Libya, there should have been an elimination of the phenomenon of arms proliferation. This does not reflect the Libyan people’s aspirations, namely freedom and the fulfillment of the will of the people in terms of building an inclusive state. This will certainly not happen in the presence of this proliferation of arms; it can only be archived through a roadmap that expresses the will of the Libyan people, not the militias, and such a plan would be met with widespread support.

Q: Does this mean we should be supporting the parties that are fighting against the Islamist militias in Libya?

This does not mean Egyptian or Arab intervention in Libya, but there is a duty to support moderation and strengthen the Libyans in their confrontation against extremism.

Q: This brings us to the question of the Syrian conflict. Do you think that the Arab positions towards this war have changed as the crisis has dragged on?

There was an Arab position towards what is happening in Syria, but the situation on the ground is evolving. I believe that we need to review this new reality. We need political solutions and to avoid the military solution. At the same time, we are committed to Syria as a unified state—without division or partition, particularly as this would create more problems and enforce a new and complicated reality on the ground. We are facing the delicate balancing act of preserving Syria while exterminating the terrorist and takfirist groups that have appeared on the scene there.

Q: What about the prospect of the survival of President Bashar Al-Assad, particularly as Syria is in the process of holding presidential elections?

Resolving the Syrian crisis must take place at three points. These are the foundations which must be built upon; we must reach a solution without either escalating the conflict or dividing the country or allowing the takfirist groups a role. Everybody must work to find solutions to achieve this goal.

Q: You are speaking about takfirism—but the armed groups that have intervened in Syria also include Hezbollah . . .

The alliance between Syria and Hezbollah is well known, and so any support from one party to the other is understood. Resolving the Syrian crisis is the only way of ending the interdependent relationship between these two sides. After this is achieved, you would be able to resolve the other complex issues associated to the bitter reality the Syrian people have been experiencing for more than three years.

Q: Moving to Palestine: What about the Hamas movement, which has organizational and ideological links to the Muslim Brotherhood?

Hamas and its ideological links [to the Muslim Brotherhood] are not important to us. What is important is that none of this affects the security of Egypt, and for this ideology not to be used to harm anyone.

Of course, nobody believes that this will be able to harm Egypt’s security or tamper with the capabilities of the Egyptian people. This is unfeasible. People are free to believe whatever they wish. We do not intervene in anybody’s choices, but at the same time we will not allow anybody to tamper with Egypt’s national security. Everybody knows that the Egyptians do not accept anything that threatens our security, even though they [Hamas] have been present since 2005. Since that time, the tunnel trade [under the Egyptian border to Gaza], including arms smuggling, has increased. This had a significant effect [on Egypt]. At the start of terrorist activities in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt took the crucial decision to put an end to this. I would like to confirm here that we will not allow the situation to return to how it was before.

Q: You previously said that there would be no Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt if you became president. Do you stand by this statement?

The Egyptian people have a certain position [on the Muslim Brotherhood]. It is the responsibility of the Egyptian people alone to decide this. The Egyptian people were prepared on July 3 to accept every party, but their support for the Brotherhood had now completely ended.

Q: What about the “international” Muslim Brotherhood? Some countries in the region have placed the Brotherhood on their “terrorist” watch lists—how do you view this move?

The complete cooperation between the key Arab parties who were able to take this important decision has become clear. One of the results of this decision will be to put an end to the presence of this group domestically and internationally, while any remnant of the Brotherhood will have a limited influence. However we—Egypt and the Gulf states—must monitor this issue.

We also see that the new reality in the Arab region is reshaping the West’s view towards the Brotherhood and their ilk, and we have examples [of this] in terms of what is happening in Libya and Syria.

Q: If you are elected president, you would have the power to grant amnesty. Would you pardon those members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were convicted recently?

The problem is that they need to reconcile with the Egyptians: Go out into the street and ask the people.

Q: Did you harbor any ambitions to the presidency when you issued the declaration that ended Brotherhood rule last July 3?

No. There was a huge public pressure from all Egyptians; the sense of danger and fear of confrontation had driven people to demand an end to Brotherhood rule. Had things been running smoothly, people would not have had to call on me for help.

Q: We have seen Egypt regress over the past few years due to the domestic situation. What foreign policy would you seek to follow if you become president?

We have a policy of openness towards everybody. We want to cooperate. We do not want to clash with anybody, so long as there is mutual respect and the other side avoids clashing with us. We are committed to the unity of Egyptian and Gulf security, and the interdependence of all Arab security. This is indivisible. We will also work to strengthen cooperation with the Nile Basin countries as a joint strategic depth, as well as to consolidate cooperation with all international states on the basis of equality, mutual trust and non-inference in the affairs of others.

I also emphasize the expansion of options for [international] cooperation in order to achieve national interests. Strategic relations with the US do not preclude relations with other global powers, such as Russia, China and the European Union. We are committed to the Palestinian cause until a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem is established. We are also committed to Africa and to relations with Islamic states. We will work to manage foreign relations according to a strategic vision that will achieve mutual interests of all parties.

Q: What is your view of the negotiations between the P5+1 group of states and Iran? Do you support or object to these negotiations?

We support any security arrangements that do not affect the security of the Gulf, on the basis that this [Gulf security] is Egyptian security and we will not allow any party to tamper with it.

Q: Where does Egypt stand on the nuclear technology debate?

The peaceful use of nuclear capabilities is guaranteed by international treaties. There are countries that possess advanced technology which can produce a nuclear weapon but have not done so. The question here is: Can we get to the level where we have the required knowledge and capability to produce a nuclear weapon, but only use this knowledge for peaceful purposes?

Q: You announced that Saudi Arabia would be the first country you would visit if you became president of Egypt. What is the message that you would bring Saudi Arabia on this visit?

Allow me to first express all my appreciation and respect to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz. He is a wise and true Arab ruler, and that is why I said that the first country that I want to visit is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I want to visit to express my appreciation to Hakim Al-Arab [the wise man of the Arabs]. I will not forget how he stood with us and still stands with us, nor will I forget his support for the Egyptian people, which changed the balance of the equation.

Let me emphasize the need to integrate the stances of the two countries during times of trouble, and for Egypt and Saudi Arabia to always stand together and not allow our joint relations to be harmed again. Second, it would serve Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s national security interests to integrate. The sense of Arab nationalism has always motivated us, because we are intertwined and we support one another. This is something that we always need. I previously said that Egypt will not stand idly by in the face of any threat to any Gulf state. There is only a short distance [masasfa sikka] between us. This means that in the event that Egypt is called to respond to any act that threatens any state . . . We will respond immediately. And I repeat that there is only masasfa sikka between us.

Q: You previously served as Egypt’s military attaché to Saudi Arabia. What are your memories of your time in the Kingdom?

I have many powerful memories from this time, including my visit to the Al-Faisaliyah Center [the third-tallest building in Saudi Arabia] after it opened. I also recall the generosity of the Saudis, the excellent food, and the Saudi personality, which I have every respect for.

Q: What other countries do you intend to visit if you are elected?

The priority will without doubt be given to Arab countries, as well as Saudi Arabia, as I said. I also intend to visit the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and neighboring African countries. We still have a long way to go.

Q: What if you were invited by the White House?

I would make any visit beneficial to the interests of the Egyptian nation and its people.

Without a doubt, we have a different understanding than others. We also have our own understanding of what happened in the past. In the first few months that followed June 30, it was difficult for some countries in North America and Europe to fully comprehend what had happened or to understand the objective reasons behind the step the Egyptian people had taken. But after those few months, we noticed they were gradually beginning to understand— not to suggest that they have arrived at a complete understanding, because the roadmap is yet to be completed.

Q: You recently visited the United Arab Emirates, at a time when Egyptian and Emirate forces were concluding joint military exercises. What is the reason for this visit?

First, let me emphasize that there has long between military cooperation between Egypt and the UAE forces, as well as annual joint military training. We will continue with more training, so that our forces are prepared to work in different theaters of operation.

Q: There have been counter-terrorist operations taking place in the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere in Egypt for over a year. How are these operations progressing?

It is clear that we must pay attention to the danger of the map we are confronted with today. We cannot wait for terrorists to enter our country: we must confront this. It is important to put in place a comprehensive strategy to protect the hearts and minds of our people. We will also work to change the religious discourse that is offensive to Islam, and that is through a joint Arab vision and strategy to solve these issues.

Q: Can you give us any specifics?

We are committed to schools of religious science, and we are looking again to schools that promulgate moderate Islam, to protect minds against extremism.

Q: It is clear from your statements that you are familiar with Islamist literature . . .

I do not want to specify the names of any books. This issue is based on long years of research and readings. I ask myself: Why is the situation like this? I have felt that there is something wrong since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and anybody who wants to confirm this need only look at a map. Therefore, it is our duty as Muslims to try and find out why the situation is how it is.

Q: But there were revisions during the Hosni Mubarak era, with some Islamists renouncing violence and being granted greater access to society as a result. Is your priority to contain the Islamists?

There is a difference between those who abandon violence and adhere to the constitution and the rule of law and those who abandon terrorist acts but ultimately remain committed to their old ideology and views. The situation requires a comprehensive strategy to deal with this phenomenon, a continuous review until the threats have passed. We believe that Al-Azhar has an important role to play, and this will continue in the future. We must work to protect the youth by promoting true moderate Islam, which prevents the spread of extremism, otherwise extremism and militancy will remain. Unfortunately, what is happening gives us the impression that religion is extremism, and this is a great injustice and a wrong.

Q: The Egyptian economy has been in decline. How would you address this?

To begin, we studied examples from Brazil and other countries that are similar in population size to Egypt in terms of population in order to learn from their experiences. At the same time, I always asked people around me and economic affairs experts whether these countries went through the same circumstances Egypt is today witnessing, in terms of the political transition. We have many challenges and negativities that require an ambitious and wide-ranging strategy in order to get Egypt out of the circle of poverty and to ease its burdens. This requires everybody’s understanding.

Think of what happened recently in Greece, and how the whole of Europe stood with it to find a way out of the crisis. This was also the case with Portugal and Spain.

Q: What is your view of the subsidies issue?

There are rich people and even foreign embassies in Egypt receiving subsidies, but it is the poor who are the ones who badly need them. Many issues should be reconsidered through what I call the ‘smart subsidy’ system.

There are many plans, initiatives and examples . . . Indeed, there is a plan [to reform subsidies]. We hope that public sentiment will allow it to be carried out.

Q: Do you have a plan for your first hundred days in office?

The idea of the ‘first hundred days’ is a foreign import. The ‘first hundred days’ could be a benchmark in politically stable countries that have strong state institutions and are not facing serious threats—unlike Egypt. Egyptians should feel that the situation in all fields is improving within few months.

Q: Were any confidential documents leaked during the January 25 revolution in 2011, especially given the security service’s headquarters were stormed?

No state secrets have been leaked. True, due to the turmoil some negative incidents took place. However, some state institutions—including the intelligence service and the foreign affairs ministry, among others— have kept their secrets. These circumstances have come to an end, and we will not at any cost allow any threats against or attacks on the state’s security.

Q: What are your aspirations for the new parliament, which will be elected shortly after the next president?

I hope the parliament will continue what I have started. I have a great hope that the forthcoming parliament will establish the basic rules that will enable the people to achieve their aspirations.

Q: In Arab politics, the personality of the president or the leader and his relationship with his counterparts affect the country’s policies. Would you present a different model of power?

The personality and the personal choices of the president or the leader or any elected figure should not influence the choices of the state. National interest should be the basis.

This interview has been translated from the Arabic, which can be read here.

MBC Chairman: ‘Knowledge economies cannot be built without the youth’

MBC founder and chairman Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim (left) speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat Editor-in-Chief Dr. Adel Al-Toraifi at the Dubai Media Forum on May 21, 2014 in Dubai, UAE. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
MBC founder and chairman Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim (left) speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat Editor-in-Chief Dr. Adel Al-Toraifi at the Dubai Media Forum on May 21, 2014 in Dubai, UAE. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat—Like everywhere in the world, the media in the Arab region is struggling to adapt to the emergence of new media. Media in the region also face a number of unique challenges, not least political instability and extremism.

But in conversation with Asharq Al-Awsat, MBC Group chairman Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim expressed his firm belief that media in the Arab world can conquer these challenges, saying that young people are the key to securing the future of media in the region.

Q: The Arab media industry has been developing for a few decades now, both in London and the region. What do you think the future holds for Arab media?

I trust the capabilities of the younger generation to achieve a great deal and become leaders, so I make sure to provide a framework to promote the best performance possible. I am proud when I witness the birth of a promising media, and especially when I see a young face on one of our channels.

Does anything make you worry for the future of media in our region?

What I fear in media is the prevalence of antiquated mentalities and a narrow view of competition, and especially when people are dishonest and try to cut corners. This is happening today in a number of media outlets, which I feel are taking media in the wrong direction. Media now is characterized by insulting and exaggerated language, which has replaced dignified language and professionalism and ignored the tastes of the market.

I’m also afraid that the media restricts freedoms and is inclined toward extremism, instead of moderation. I’m afraid of the physical and intellectual terrorism that threatens journalists in conflict zones, as well as the persistence of piracy and theft of content. In any case, my goal is to continue working in order to expand the Arab media market, and to secure the kind of budgets that will allow it to compete and excel in our region and beyond. This can only be achieved by expanding the size of the advertising market, building knowledge economies, and promoting a culture of work and production.

Q: Two of the MBC Group’s channels, Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath, focus on the youth to quite an extent. Is this a reflection of your faith in the ability of the youth in our region?

It is certainly a reflection of our confidence in our youth and our faith in their abilities. We cannot exclude this generation from our future plans and projects, whether in the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] or abroad. We are counting on them to keep pace with the process of evolution and the path of gradual and purposeful change, in order to put an end to fossilized mindsets and to counter extremism in the region. In all honesty, knowledge economies cannot be built without the younger generation: There are about 180 million young people in the Arab world. The biggest challenge lies in finding initiatives that would enable these young people to become more creative, provide them with productive jobs, and give them a wider space for innovation and creativity. This is what we offer in a number of talent-oriented initiatives and programs that aim to instill the youth with self-confidence and a [desire to pursue] excellence, while encouraging them to renounce violence, extremism and intolerance. Most importantly, we strive to keep the candle of hope lit.

Q: Al-Jazeera America launched to some great fanfare last summer, after Al-Jazeera English was launched in 2006. Do you have any comment on the phenomenon of Al-Jazeera International? Will we ever see an “Al-Arabiya English”?

If you want to follow anyone, they must be successful. Do you consider Al-Jazeera English successful?! Why we are expected to follow unsuccessful media models? Al-Jazeera America has not been able to attract the American viewer. You have to consider the cost and performance of its counterparts in the United States; and Al-Jazeera has a diverse investment portfolio and acquired Al Gore’s Current TV television company for a hefty sum. Entering into competition with international news channels requires extraordinary potential, and [it requires you to] work with a similar mentality and professionalism. Here, the experience of sports channels that have the rights to cover international matches and races is important, because those rights were acquired for astronomical sums and yet did not achieve noteworthy commercial returns at all. New channels cannot be launched if they are not economically feasible. Despite this, nothing prevents us from having our own special experience in the field of sports [coverage], through depending on the standards that distinguish MBC Group.

Incidentally, the Al-Jazeera news channel is our competition within the Arab region. But Al-Arabiya, in addition to having the highest viewership figures and gaining the confidence of advertisers and the world of finance and business, has become the top channel in the region. It has more than 27 million followers and subscribers registered on social networks.

My friend Abu Khaled [Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal] has said that Al-Arabiya is the channel of rulers, while Al-Jazeera is the channel of the people—but are really there 27 million rulers?

Q: Google recently purchased WhatsApp for 19 billion US dollars. Do you think similar business deals and huge mergers in the media, new media and entertainment sectors will become the norm in the future? Do you think such deals could become commonplace in our region?

In principle, nothing is impossible—but I do not think that the amounts that are traded globally can apply to our region. In America, there are 5 or 6 broadcast television networks, as well as a leading national broadcaster. In the Arab world, there are hundreds of small, uncompetitive channels, so mergers, acquisitions and restructuring must take place, especially among new players.

MBC Group today is a private company and I personally make sure that our company follows the best practices in its administrative, operational, social, and technological performances. These practices must be checked and when we are put under the microscope, we become more attractive to the leading players in the media world, as well to investors and shareholders.

Q: Where do you think television fits in the Arab media scene in this age of the Internet and new media?

Television remains an indispensable source of entertainment—not only in the Arab region, but around the world. Recent times have demonstrated—especially in this particular region—that television is a bridge to [Internet] forums and social networks, as well as the driving force behind media consumption, with its various fixed, interactive and animated platforms. What happens on the television screen is usually what influences conversations on [Internet] forums, social media networks, new media and so on. And that is not to mention the great entertainment television is able to provide to the millions who watch it.

Q: Social media has come to shape the landscape in Saudi Arabia and the wider world. Do you follow Twitter? Will it have an impact on TV viewership?

I am on Twitter, as well as other social networking sites and forums associated with the Group. We have reached more than 122 million subscribers and followers [on social media] as of April 2014, which is a very high number, not only in comparison with other regional media groups, but the world over. This is a great achievement for us, [and these numbers are] in line with the average television viewership rates we enjoy throughout the Arab world. In fact, I see integration, not competition, between traditional media, digital media and new media. As I said previously, I consider television to be a driving force behind and bridge toward interactive platforms in both directions. We see this every day, especially with the top Arabized global entertainment programs [Arab versions of global reality TV formats, such as Arabs Got Talent], which have reached very high viewership levels and an increasingly interactive audience on social media sites, forums and the Internet generally.

This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.

The first part of the interview, in which Sheikh Waleed discusses the MBC Group, can be read here.

In Conversation with Sheikh Waleed

MBC founder and chairman Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim (left) speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat Editor-in-Chief Dr. Adel Al-Toraifi at the Dubai Media Forum on May 21, 2014 in Dubai, UAE. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
MBC founder and chairman Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim (L) speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat Editor-in-Chief Dr. Adel Al-Toraifi at the Arab Media Forum on May 21, 2014, in Dubai. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat—From its beginnings in London in the early 1990s, the MBC Group has grown into the preeminent media conglomerate in the Middle East. Now based in Dubai, it is known for its mix of popular Middle Eastern and international programming, as well as news coverage, carried mainly on the 24-hour Al-Arabiya channel.

In addition to being the first broadcaster in the region to offer free-to-air satellite television, the Group has also launched the region’s first video on demand service, the first free-to-air 24-hour news channel, the first women’s interest channel, and the first free-to-air HD channels.

Asharq Al-Awsat’s editor-in-chief sat down with Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, the Group’s chairman and CEO, on the sidelines of this year’s Arab Media Forum in Dubai to talk about his vision for MBC and its content, as well as the state of media in the Arab world.

Asharq Al-Awsat: MBC was founded in London in 1991, but in 2001 you moved to Dubai. How do you compare the Group’s experiences in the two cities?

Sheikh Waleed Al-Ibrahim: To be honest, in the beginning we went to London in search of stability, security, safety, public and private freedoms, progressive mentalities, professionalism, creativity, individual initiative and entrepreneurship.

But Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum [the Ruler of Dubai] brought us back to the heart of the Arab world, and he has provided for us—and for others in Dubai—what we originally dreamed of when we went to London—and more! Thus, in 2001, MBC Group moved to Dubai, and that was truly a quantum leap on all levels. I have said time and again that Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the flame. The closer you get to the flame, the more you are touched by its light and its warmth. There is no doubt that our presence in Dubai has had a major impact. This city has witnessed uninterrupted success over the past years, thanks to the watchful eye of the Emirati leadership, the enlightened mind and vision of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the facilities available in the Emirates, and a generally open mentality. This is in addition to a high level of competitiveness and lower operational costs in comparison to those of any media group in Britain or in other European countries and the rest of the world. Frankly, what I appreciate about Dubai is the humility that counters the sheer size of its accomplishments. The more it achieves, the more humility that is instilled within the builders of Dubai.

Q: Can you tell us which media group or television channel represents the biggest competition for the MBC Group?

The media group that represents the biggest challenge for us is any that has succeeded and continues to succeed in providing a sustainable basic product—exactly as we did when we launched our mother channel, MBC1. Then one thing led to another! Of course, we have some competitors in a number of countries—in Egypt, North Africa and elsewhere.

Other avenues of competition are related to specific genres, such as news or sports. However, even in the news arena, the Al-Arabiya television channel has outperformed some of its toughest competitors in terms of credibility, covering breaking news and economic stories, viewership rates, retaining the confidence of both advertisers and the world of business and finance, and garnering a large following on the Internet and social networking websites.

At any rate, we take into account the performance of the basic 50 channels—out of more than a thousand—on Arab satellite television. We also closely follow modern techniques in the world of broadcasting, communications, social networking, technology and telecommunications companies, service providers, and content producers. All of these sectors are linked to television and media.

Q: The MBC Group has a significant presence in the Saudi market. Does your relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia affect the quality of your work? Do Saudi relations with Arab and Western countries affect the nature and content of your coverage and your general editorial line?

Our character as a media group is affected by our interaction with the viewer and our understanding of his dreams and concerns. But in some cases, our presentation has differed from that of the official [state television] networks in certain countries. The best example of this was during the Arab Spring, when we relied on a special strategy in our work and took a different editorial line than the countries we consider ourselves close to.

Of course, we are still practicing media, and not politics in the narrowest sense of the word. Without any doubt, what concerns us the most is the national interest, and we do not disseminate official government views. In regards to the Al-Arabiya channel, I have full confidence in my colleague, Mr. Abdulrahman Al-Rashed. He is capable of managing both the Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath news channels, and of leading them towards success.

Q: Saudi host Dawood Al-Shirian has begun to garner attention for his bold attitude towards addressing social and political issues on his talk show, Al-Thamina Ma’a Dawood (Eight O’Clock with Dawood). Who draws the boundaries on such boldness at the MBC Group?

In all honesty, it is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, who determines such limits. He calls on everyone—including ministers and senior officials—to put the interests of the Kingdom above all else, to meet the aspirations of the Saudi citizen, and to meet the needs of the youth, all within a framework of transparency and improved performance. From my experience, I can add with full confidence that Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz also pays attention to the interests of the Saudi citizen. He is an unassailable bastion of the Kingdom, a friend of journalists and the greatest supporter of modern media. My understanding of Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz is that he is the closest to our generation, and I am confident that he is working for the good and benefit of all those who live within the Kingdom.

To return to your question, on a practical level it is daily practice that sets the limits to our boldness. As long as your content services the nation and its citizens, you have few limits. Regarding some programs and sensitive issues, the directors and producers look to the administration for advice and counsel.

For example, my colleague, Mr. Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, uses his experience, knowledge and passion for matters of public interest to direct the content of the Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath. The same goes for Mr. Dawood Al-Shirian’s direction of Al-Thamina, as well as the news bulletins on MBC1 and the MBC in a Week program. At any rate, I consider these two authorities on such matters, and I do not interfere in their decisions.

Q: MBC Masr, the Egyptian channel, has become a very popular even though some consider it suspect because the Group is run by Saudis. How have you dealt with this? Are you satisfied with MBC Masr’s performance so far?

MBC Masr is a quintessentially Egyptian channel, created out of the country and managed by a cadre of Egyptians. Mohamed Abdel-Mutaal, the general manager of the channel, has full operational, administrative and financial independence. We do not interfere in Egyptian internal affairs. This is our public policy. Today, MBC Masr is the second-most viewed channel in Egypt. But, as we have learned from Shekih Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, we cannot stop at being number 2. We must always focus on getting to first place.

Q: Where does MBC stand in terms of the Egyptian presidential candidates, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabahy? How have you addressed the Egyptian voter during the campaign?

We support the stability of Egypt and everything that preserves its security and national interest, as it is the largest Arab county and one of the most notable in terms of demographics and economy. The Egyptian people have great creative potential as well. I believe that stability in Egypt is the key to stability in the region, and I believe that Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is a prime example of courage and bravery in the face of extremism. But before we can say anything, we must wait for Egyptian voters to take to the polls. We will stand by the decision of the Egyptian people.

Our media presence in Egypt is not a recent development; it did not start with the creation of MBC Masr in 2012. In fact, our media presence was cemented in 1991, when MBC1 was established. That was our first cooperative effort with Maspero [the Egyptian state broadcasting authority], when it purchased the rights to broadcast some of MBC’s programming, such as dramas. From that time on, MBC1 became a presence within Arab and Egyptian media. It is no secret that Egyptian TV channels have greatly evolved due to the content they received from MBC.

Q: Popular TV comedian Bassem Youssef was asked to sign with MBC Masr, and as a result viewership of the channel increased. What drove you to pursue Bassem Youssef?

Bassem Youssef is a cultured and ambitious young Egyptian, a cardiologist and an outstanding journalist. The successful presentation and content of [Youssef’s show] Al-Bernameg depends on a team of creative youth. The controversy surrounding Al-Bernameg mostly has to do with what’s happening on the Egyptian street, and it is unfair to burden it with more than it can carry. Today, Al-Bernamag airs on MBC Masr. Bassem Youssef and his team determine the content of Al-Bernameg’s episodes, and we do not interfere in these decisions.

Q: We heard that you have established new partnerships with Turkey. What goals do you have for these collaborations?

We are working to build and establish companies to produce shared content with Turkish producers, because the market in Turkey is both professional and developed and production values are very high. Similarly, we are working to find alternatives to the Turkish–Arabic dramas if they can be cost-effective, high quality, competitive and draw a large viewership.

Q: MBC Group has many programs devoted to the subject of terrorism. What is the role of the media in covering terrorism?

Terrorism has no country or religion! It is an international crime that does not spare anyone. Essentially, there are three schools of thought in the media on how to discuss the scourge of terrorism:

You can deal with it sympathetically, giving terrorists a positive reign over media and therefore a fertile ground for the emergence and promotion of their ideas, ideologies, actions and faces. You can be neutral, only focusing on the news related to terrorism, shying away from the promotion of terrorists and their crimes. At the same time, neutrality precludes a direct confrontation with terrorism as well.

Or you can confront and counter terrorism. You can pursue an effective path of opposition to terrorism by providing meaningful cross-media content that calls a spade a spade without fear or hesitation. You can keep the public aware of things, in order to protect peace, stability, security and the national interest. This is the method we adopted early on here at MBC Group and the Al-Arabiya channel. It is true that it is a tough path, but it is the healthiest and safest one.

Naturally, education, awareness, efforts in the field, and security operations are the most important aspects of counterterrorism. These are all integrated into the role of media. In this regard, I am proud of the achievements of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan [the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Emirates’ armed forces] and Prince Mohammed Bin Naif Bin Abdulaziz [the Saudi Minister of the Interior], who I consider two of the most prominent figures combatting extremism and terrorism in our region.

Q: MBC has received a lot of attention for its historical dramas—you recently produced the series Saraya Abdeen, and before that Omar and King Farouk. For each show there followed political and social reactions to the programming. Can you tell us about them?

Saraya Abdeen is by far the most ambitious Arab drama production, surpassing Omar in terms of costs. With the personal support of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, as well as our cooperation with Dubai Media City, we were able to use the highest-quality audiovisual technology in our new studios in the City in order to successfully produce Saraya Abdeen. The series Surprise, coming this Ramadan, will be the new benchmark for large dramatic works . . .

Q: MCB often makes Arab versions of popular programs from around the world. Where do these “remade” series fit into your larger work?

I always hear about “remaking”—but I don’t understand exactly what it means. For example, is producing a program in America whose original idea comes from the Netherlands and with intellectual ownership by a global [production] company with a presence on five continents, called “remaking”?

Is filming a globally recognized format in Beirut or Dubai or Cairo, for example—with high standards and the latest audiovisual and production technologies, along with Arab creativity, talent, contestants, members of judging panels, and Arab musicians, on Arab lands—is that “remaking,” too? It is as though globalization does not exist, or as though we don’t know how to preserve our Arab identity, while remaining open-minded toward the best of the East and the West.

Q: MBC’s video on demand service, Shahid.net—similar to the BBC’s iPlayer or Hulu in the US—was the first such service in the Arab world, and it is rapidly gaining popularity. How do you plan to promote Shahid.net and confront challenges like piracy?

We are working to outfit Shahid.net with top-of-the-line technology and locally competitive content. Of course, there is a plan to launch a companion site called Shahid Plus in order to allow the viewer to download top new movies and TV series so they can watch them at any time for a small fee.

I follow new digital applications with great interest, as I do exclusive, pioneering content that takes into account the need to adopt effective legal, administrative and technical measures to fight piracy and protect intellectual property rights. As for the possibility of cooperating with international partners who are experts in the field, everything is possible, but long-term partnerships must also provide for the interests of all parties involved.

Q: You run quite a few Arab versions of internationally popular reality TV competitions, on which first-rate stars often appear. For example, you had . What surprises are up your sleeve for this year?

Today, MBC has in its possession a range of leading global programs in their Arab forms, including Arabs Got Talent, The Voice, Arab Idol, and Shaklak Mesh Gharib [the Arab version of Your Face Sounds Familiar]. All have a musical component and need great artists to sit on the judging panels. Our record company, Platinum Records, follows up and manages the work of new stars in the early stages, and some of them are products of these Arabized global programs. We cherish cooperation with the most prominent Arab drama stars and judging panels, and we are honored to be able to offer these programs.

Q: The MBC Group has achieved a lot and expanded a great deal since it was created. Are you satisfied with what has been achieved over the past 23 years? What are your aspirations for the future?

I am relatively satisfied with the performance of the MBC Group, but my ambition goes far beyond what we have accomplished so far. I am never satisfied with myself, and this is what motivates me to work hard and expect more from the team, in order to achieve our ambitions and dreams.

Q: What is the greatest challenge you foresee for MBC?

Continuing to progress, excel, and reinvent ourselves whenever the need arises. Most importantly, we must never reach the day in which we become self-satisfied and fall into the trap of arrogance and retreat—God forbid. As for managing the future of a sector as vibrant and variable as the media and entertainment industry, I am of the opinion that the revolution in information and communications technology carries a mixed bag of opportunities and challenges.

The most important challenge is continuing to invest in local media content that is high quality and deals with our culture and background, with a specific emphasis on clear and precise targeting. Furthermore, we must focus on the possibility of providing content customization and on-demand content.

There is a need to explore the technological changes that are reflected in one way or another through the consumption patterns of and media content most relevant to the public, especially among the youth. It is true that television remains the main source of information and entertainment, but we must also provide media content that is more integrated into multiple platforms. We must also adopt the latest technologies to communicate and interact more and more with the public.

Inevitably, we must remain alert of new means of broadcasting and distributing content on local, regional and international platforms. In particular, we must go beyond using satellites and cables. We must use whatever will allow us to reach the broadest possible audience on five continents, and thus allow us to take advantage of the many prospects within the digital world.

In any case, the human being is the focus and purpose of technological development, as well as the cornerstone of present and future progress in the media.

This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.

A second part of the interview, in which Sheikh Waleed Al-Ibrahim discusses the state of Arab media more generally, can be read here.

Opinion: The Middle East’s Past is not Dead

President Barack Obama looks back toward the East Room of the White House in Washington, on Friday, April 12, 2013. Source: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

William Faulkner once said: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” President Barack Obama might find this helpful to keep in mind as he prepares for his trip to Saudi Arabia next week. In a region known for contending with the ghosts of things long past, President Obama will need to grapple with more recent history as he seeks to shore up Saudi–US relations at a time of increasing tension between the two allies.

Foremost on the minds of senior Saudi officials are the devastating civil war in Syria and the uncertain nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 major powers, which includes the United States. Riyadh is both confused and disappointed with Washington for its failure to act more forcefully on Syria, including its failure to support the arming of moderate rebels. The Syrian crisis is both a humanitarian disaster and a geopolitical one. The winners thus far have been Iran and Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia harbors no permanent antipathy toward Iran or the Iranian people. Indeed, President Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have demonstrated a serious commitment to outreach to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But here is where recent history comes in: we have seen that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps still have decisive power in Iran, and neither have demonstrated the attitude in favor of détente shown by the globe-trotting foreign minister or the smiling president. In fact, they have demonstrated the opposite, pouring oil on Syria’s fire and supporting radical groups across the region, to the detriment of US allies.

Saudi officials will be eager to hear how President Obama intends to connect the dots regarding Iran and the dual nature of its system, wherein Iran’s president has little real control over the bomb, foreign policy, or the Revolutionary Guards. Saudi officials will also be keen to understand President Obama’s thinking on Syria. Early on in the war, President Obama held back from supporting the rebels because of fears that jihadists might be in their midst. His hesitation has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Washington’s weak response created a vacuum for jihadists, and we in Saudi Arabia and the entire region will be forced to contend with those jihadists for a generation.

Of course, as the regional diplomatic heavyweight, the Kingdom also notes with concern the resurgence of terrorism in Iraq, Yemen and Egypt, and the social strife engulfing those Arab states that experienced the 2011 uprisings. The region is in the throes of a deep crisis, and yet Washington seems to be proceeding in an ad hoc manner, failing to consult strategically with its allies, and potentially chasing false messiahs in Tehran. As a result, several of Washington’s Gulf allies are concerned—although the talk from some corners of a “break” in relations or of a “turning away” is overheated and overstated.

Both official and public opinion in places like Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama are critical of what is perceived as a US policy shift in Tehran’s favor. Whether this an accurate assessment or not, the perception is taking hold.

Although senior officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi downplay their differences with the Obama administration, behind closed doors there is sense of being let down in what is considered a Cold War between some GCC states and the Iran–Syria axis. Just consider this: as the US administration promised to block any further sanctions against Iran so as to not undermine the nuclear deal, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who has the final say in Iran’s state affairs—condemned the US, arguing that the nuclear deal is a “waste of time” that would lead “nowhere” and urging radical Shi’ites to resist the US in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. In his latest address, during the Nowruz festival, Khamenei dismissed the Holocaust by claiming it was “an event whose reality is uncertain and, if it happened, it’s uncertain how it happened.” That statement is an echo of the discourse of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and it contradicts the perception of the Iranian regime as “strategic,” “not impulsive,” and not seeking “suicide” that President Obama put forth in a recent interview.

Despite all of this, it is important to acknowledge that the United States and Saudi Arabia enjoy an enduring alliance that has stood the test of time over and over again. The US has found in Saudi Arabia a reliable partner to secure a stable global oil market and to stand by its side during every crisis. Saudi Arabia is a confident and honest yet independent partner to the United States: just consider the war on terrorism and the key role the Saudis have played in securing their state and aiding their Western allies with intelligence and logistical assistance. But tensions and differences will still surface from time to time, though the two sides have, in most cases, learned to work past it. There have been differences in the past over the Palestine–Israel peace process, Iraq, and Iran, just to name a few. This time shouldn’t be any different. On this visit, there is a great opportunity for the two sides to readdress these issues, as well as to redefine their areas of cooperation and new alternative approaches to critical issues—most importantly Syria, where a compromise can be reached.

On Syria, Washington cannot continue to stand idly by while Assad and Hezbollah regain land by destroying thousands of innocent civilian lives. In the face of this tragedy, the US must build new momentum and offer new ideas that focus on Assad’s departure and that secure the future of Alawites and other minorities in their homeland, as the Dayton Accords did for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As for Iran, President Rouhani may be a fine man with good intentions, and his foreign minister has been busy trying to engage with the Gulf states, but in reality they have very little real control. There is a keen understanding of this in Riyadh, and President Obama will need to address this issue directly.

In working on these issues, Mr. Obama should take advantage of some positive developments happening in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah has expanded the fight against terrorism by issuing tough laws to deter Saudi nationals from joining armed groups abroad and by urging Saudi citizens to combat radical and intolerant views propagated by some Islamist preachers of hate. This has led over a hundred brave Shi’ite scholars in Saudi Arabia to issue a statement in support of this step, condemning the use of violence by a small group in the Eastern Province. These new Saudi terror laws are also an effort to criminalize the actions of those members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are exploiting Sunni–Shi’ite tensions in Syria and elsewhere. The Saudis understand that the old animosities do not die, but they know they should do their best to protect their citizens, regardless of race or sect, from those evils.

President Obama’s visit to Riyadh will be a good opportunity for both sides to present their cases. In Riyadh, the disappointment with Obama’s policies is palpable, and Saudi Arabia is keen to understand Washington’s views on Syria and Iran. The recent past has not been good to the region, partly because of the malign actions of those two states. How Washington handles those two files will be critical to the long-term interests of key US allies, including Saudi Arabia.

Chinese Foreign Minister: Our position on Syria is objective and fair

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right) speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat Editor Adel Al Toraifi in Beijing in March 2014 (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right) speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat Editor Adel Al Toraifi in Beijing in March 2014 (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Beijing, Asharq Al-Awsat—During Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz’s official trip to China, Asharq Al-Awsat met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for an in-depth interview. Mr. Wang spoke in detail about Prince Salman’s visit and touched on a range of regional and international topics.

The interview was conducted in the Great Hall of the People, an enormous building in which high-level official meetings are held and the National People’s Congress meets. The Hall, as it is officially called, is a standout architectural landmark in Beijing, the Chinese capital, and is one of the most recognizable features in all of China. This striking edifice overlooking Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing was built in 1959 on the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It is one of the Ten Great Buildings which were built during that historic year. Construction took ten months, and was completed at the hands of volunteers.

While Asharq Al-Awsat waited to interview the minister, the Saudi Crown Prince met with the Chinese head of state in one of the Hall’s adjoining rooms adorned with images of Mao Zedong and the Red Star.

The interview with Foreign Minister Wang Yi was conducted immediately after the meeting between the Chinese President and Crown Prince Salman, which exceeded its scheduled time. When we asked the minister why the meeting had run for so long, he replied that the satisfactory nature of the meeting had kept the two parties talking for longer than expected.

Mr. Wang also informed us that the visit had achieved two goals: first, to raise the level of coordination; and second, to expand the areas of strategic cooperation at all levels. During the meeting, Crown Prince Salman emphasized his support for the One-China policy, and condemned the recent terrorist attack that took place on Chinese soil. The talks between the Saudi and Chinese sides touched on regional issues, foremost of which was the Syrian conflict, the Palestinian issue, and the Iranian nuclear project; both sides were able to come to an agreement on most of them. The Chinese president praised the visit, and stressed the need for a free trade zone within the Gulf. Both sides also somewhat surprisingly came to a consensus regarding Egypt. As for Syria, the two sides agreed on an overarching vision, with Beijing proposing its own in this regard.

Sixty-year-old Wang is a veteran diplomat who speaks Japanese fluently, having previously served in Tokyo as the ambassador to Japan. He graduated from Beijing University and majored in International Studies, where he also studied Japanese. After joining the diplomatic corps, he attended Georgetown University in Washington DC where he earned a Master’s degree in International Relations, then completing a second Master’s degree, also in International Relations, from the China Foreign Affairs University. In February 2001, he was promoted to the position of Deputy Foreign Minister for Asian Affairs. After becoming ambassador to Japan and Manager of Taiwanese relations, he was appointed foreign minister in March 2013.

Asharq Al-Awsat: How do you view the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz to your country?

Wang Yi: This visit came at the invitation of Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao. The visit is one of the highest-level of its kind, behind the visit of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz to our country in January 2006, and the visit by Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz 15 years ago. This is an historic visit of great importance. Prince Salman was received with the utmost respect, met by President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and State Councilor and Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan. Vice President Li Yuanchao held talks with the Saudi Crown Prince, during which the two sides reached a broad consensus on bilateral relations and regional and international issues of common concern. They also signed a series of bilateral cooperation documents and issued a joint statement.

Leaders on both sides joined together around the need to fortify the strategic friendship between the two countries in light of current circumstances and as a means to open up new horizons for continuous bilateral relations. What is required from both sides is continuous understanding and exchanges of support on issues related to the core interests and major concerns of the other party. This also includes working to expand cooperation in the fields of science and advanced technology, such as high-speed trains, the peaceful use of nuclear energy, aviation, and space, in addition to expanding cooperation in traditional areas such as energy, economy and trade. Other concerns consist in increasing cultural and humanitarian exchanges, accelerating the establishment of a free trade zone between China and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), working to push the establishment of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which will invigorate the friendship between the two countries. Accordingly, it can be said that the visit of Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz to China was a complete success.

Q: How do you view relations between China and Saudi Arabia in light of current circumstances?

In recent years Chinese–Saudi relations have witnessed comprehensive and rapid development thanks to the personal concern of leaders of both countries and their shared efforts to establish a strong friendship and sense of brotherhood, making the countries close partners. They interact with each other on an equal footing, exchange support, and cooperate in order to achieve common gains. According to China’s understanding, the development of relations between the two countries is fundamentally related to three reasons:

First, mutual respect and trust, which form an important basis for developing bilateral relations. Despite the fact that the history, culture, social system, and development patterns of China and Saudi Arabia differ, the two countries have always communicated with each other on an equal basis and in the framework of mutual trust and respect. This ensured a steady development of bilateral relations in the right direction.

Second, cooperation is mutually beneficial. It is a driving force behind the continuous development of bilateral relations, which are characterized by strong economic integration. This creates a consensus on the foundational interests of the two people, and promising prospects.

Third, the two peoples’ friendship is an important link that brings relations between the countries closer. The traditional friendship that links the Chinese and Saudi peoples forms a solid social and popular foundation for the development of bilateral relations.

The strengthening of a strategic friendship between China and Saudi Arabia, in the current state of affairs, is not consistent with the realistic and long-term interests of the two peoples and nations, but it does contribute to strengthening the foundations of peace, stability and prosperity in the region and in the wider world.

Q: For over a thousand years, the people of the Gulf and the Chinese people maintained friendly relations through the Silk Road, which allowed for commercial exchange and cultural contact between the two parties. What are the programs that will be implemented to incentivize academic and cultural contact between the two countries?

The friendship between China and the Arab countries has its roots deep in history. The Silk Road linked Arab countries with China over 2,000 years ago. China is now working to push for the construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road which meet in the West Asian and North African regions where Saudi Arabia is located. This will create many opportunities and establish a promising future for China and the countries of the region in achieving shared development and prosperity for all. We are ready to work with Saudi Arabia to build a Belt along with the Road and expand cooperation in a number of areas, deepening the integration of shared interests, boosting mutually beneficial cooperation, and reviving the Silk Road.

Q: The volume of trade exchange between China and Saudi Arabia amounts to 73 billion US dollars. Do you think that the oil trade is the basis of relations between the two countries? What is your opinion on the future of Chinese–Saudi energy cooperation?

We always strive to strengthen comprehensive cooperation with Saudi Arabia, which is mutually beneficial and translates into shared gains for both sides. Energy is actually one of the most important areas of cooperation between our country and Saudi Arabia. The initiative came in line with development requirements in our countries and permitted us to achieve a common interest for our people.

Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of energy and China’s needs have increased due to economic growth. There is huge potential for mutually beneficial cooperation between the two sides. However, our country’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not unique, and is not limited to energy, but instead includes the political, economic, cultural, and educational fields. We will continue to strengthen this mutually beneficial cooperation across various fields in the future.

Q: What is your opinion of Saudi–Chinese cooperation in the fight against terrorism?

International counterterrorism cooperation has steadily deepened in recent years and many positive developments have occurred. However, the world is still in the midst of a complicated and dangerous situation. For our part, we categorically reject terrorism in all its forms. We call on the international community to cooperate in the fight in accordance with the UN charter, international law, and the recognized norms that govern international relations. This also calls for taking political, economic and diplomatic measures to address terrorism comprehensively, leading to its being uprooted. As such we refuse to subscribe to double standards in the fight against terrorism, or to link terrorism to a specific country, ethnicity, or religion.

In this regard, we appreciate Saudi Arabia’s condemnation of dangerous terrorist violence, which struck on March 1 in the city of Kunming in the Yunnan Province of China. We are all harmed by terrorism, and we face a dangerous, complicated situation in combating the trend. We are prepared to strengthen communication and cooperation with Saudi Arabia in this area according to the principle of mutual respect and equality in order to safeguard peace and stability in the region and the world as a whole.

Q: China has always expressed an interest in the Middle East. What are the geopolitical considerations, other than energy resources, that drive your interest in the region?

The Middle East is an important and unique region from all geopolitical, economic, cultural and energy-related standpoints. We care about protecting peace and stability in this region as well as fortifying shared development among its nations. Some argue that our country’s involvement in Middle Eastern affairs occurs as our eyes are locked on energy. The truth is, however, that our country began its strong support for the just cause of the Palestinian people before oil was imported from the region.

What interests us about the Middle East is contained in the following points:

First, justice: protecting the fundamental rules of international relations and respecting choices made by the people through independent will. Second, peace: safeguarding regional stability and pushing for political solutions to thorny issues. Third, development: sound development among the countries of the Middle East is in the interest of China and the greater world. Fourth, communication: achieving mutual benefit through dialogue between different civilizations and shared learning.

We are keen to offer more goods to the Middle East in the future and to make greater contributions to promoting peace and development in the region, which is in line with our own capacity to grow.

Q: What is China’s position on the Iranian nuclear program?

Our position on the Iranian nuclear issue has been clear and consistent. We reject Iran developing and possessing nuclear weapons and support a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. The first agreement between the P5+1 [the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany] countries and Iran was reached in Geneva at the end of last year after ten years of negotiations. This represents very important progress achieved by diplomatic efforts since the worsening of the Iranian nuclear issue. Recently, the P5+1 countries and Iran launched negotiations surrounding a comprehensive agreement, and all countries must take into account each other’s concerns, settle disputes property, and strive to achieve mutual gains and benefits. This will lead to a comprehensive agreement that resolves the Iranian nuclear issue permanently and quickly and addresses the root of the problem, serving the interests of Iran and the wider region.

We recommend reconciliation and negotiation. We are working to find a peaceful solution that takes into account the concerns of all parties. We hope that Iran and the Gulf Arab states settle disputes through consultation, negotiation and proper problem-solving, leading to more harmonious relations.

Q: Regarding the conflict in Syria, China’s position was very clear in opposing foreign military intervention. What is your opinion on the Geneva talks and efforts to negotiate a political settlement?

After more than three years since the start of the war in Syria, all international parties came together, agreeing that war will not solve the problem and achieving a political solution through negotiations will be the only way to end the crisis. The Syrian government and the opposition have held two rounds of negotiations in the framework of the Geneva Conference so far. Both expressed a desire to continue negotiations, although there are many disputes and obstacles that are difficult to overcome. As I said at Geneva II, dialogue and negotiations are continuous processes that require constant, uninterrupted effort. It is impossible to count on one or two conferences to dismantle the hatred that has accumulated as a result of the bloody clashes that have persisted for three years. The international community must encourage both Syrian parties to undergo the third round of negotiations as soon as possible in accordance with the spirit of the Geneva statement. Negotiations must continue until results are produced and a middle road that addresses the concerns of both parties and benefits from all parties’ acceptance is located, in order to achieve peace for the country and ensure a future for its people.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council we are fully aware of our responsibilities and obligations to maintain international peace and stability. Our position on the Syrian issue is objective, fair, serious and thoughtful, and it is comprised of, in essence:

Firstly, the need to maintain the objectives and principles of the UN charter and the basic norms of international relations. This includes, in particular, the principle of non-interference into internal affairs, which is considered a “red line” in international relations. Secondly, the need to preserve the independence, sovereignty and integrity of countries’ territories, something which forms the foundation of the international system. Thirdly, the need to preserve peace and stability in the region, and protect the basic and long-term interests of the Syrian people. This is one of the foundations of our policy towards the Middle East.

Over the past three years, we have launched unremitting efforts to advance a political solution, to destroy chemical weapons in Syria, and to provide humanitarian assistance. We actively participated in the Geneva I and Geneva II Conferences, playing a constructive role in both. We maintained contact with all Syrian parties through various means and pushed for reconciliation and the encouragement of negotiations. We participated in destroying chemical weapons in Syria, and at this very moment, Chinese military ships are guarding ships carrying chemical weapons from Syria in the Mediterranean Sea. We follow the humanitarian situation in Syria with great interest and share in the suffering of the Syrian people. We have made great efforts to adopt a resolution on the humanitarian situation in Syria unanimously. At the same time, we send several shipments of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people and refugees abroad through various channels. All of these efforts are aimed at locating a political solution to the Syrian crisis and restoring peace and security to the Syrian people.

Q: How does China view the peace process between Israel and Palestine and its prospects for success? What is China’s role here?

Peace negotiations resumed between Palestine and Israel last year, and this is a good thing. However, since relations touch on core issues, the obstacles have proliferated. The Palestinian side took a flexible and practical stance in order for negotiations to continue, and we hope that Israel will avoid laying down new issues on the negotiations table and also that Israel will use its words, actions and steps to strengthen support and reduce resistance as a means to ensuring the progress of negotiations. The international community must take a just and fair stance, and launch peaceful efforts to achieve substantial progress in negotiations soon.

As friends of Palestine and all Arab countries, we have maintained unwavering support for the just cause of the Palestinian people. We support the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem. Our country constantly plays a positive role in resolving the Palestinian issue, as it has taken a series of very important steps in the direction of advising reconciliation and encouraging negotiations over the past year. Particularly, China has a four-point vision for settling the Palestinian issue that was presented by President Xi Jinping during his talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when he visited China, and which is gaining momentum in solidifying international consensus on fostering peace.

I visited both Palestine and Israel at the end of last year and pushed for more efforts to be made as regards President Xi Jinping’s four-point proposal. I told them that mutual recognition of the right to exist is a precondition for negotiations, and that addressing the concerns of the opposite side is an indispensable element. I also said that they must put themselves in each other’s shoes. I think that if the Palestinians and Israelis could translate these three points into realities on the ground, there will be hope for the negotiations.

Palestine, along with all Arab countries, continues to cling to peaceful negotiations as a strategic choice, and we greatly appreciate that. The solution to the Palestinian issue requires joint efforts on the parts of the Palestinians and Israelis, as well as mobilizing the minds and energies of the international community. China is keen to provide more positive energy so as to push forward the peace negotiations between Palestine and Israel and encourage participation of all parties in a determined effort to achieve a comprehensive and just solution to the Palestinian issue as soon as possible.

Q: How do you see the US–China relationship currently, especially after a meeting between the two heads of state? Their meeting focused on competition in the Pacific Ocean, North Korea’s nuclear program, and electronic security?

In the June of last year, President Xi Jinping and President Obama met for a historic meeting at the Annenberg Retreat in California. The two sides reached an important agreement on the establishment of a new type of relationship as dual superpowers. This was a strategic decision taken by both the Chinese and the Americans jointly after assessing their domestic and international standings. The momentum of the Sino–US relations also reflects the determination of China and the United States to break the so-called historical trap of relations between superpowers sliding towards confrontation. The two sides are paving a new road in the era of globalization that will be devoid of confrontation. The relationship is based on mutual respect, cooperation, and mutual gain.

Cooperation between China and the United States has already yielded economic, mercantile, military, humanitarian, cultural, and environmental growth. This upward trajectory was in part a result of the important consensus between the presidents of the two countries. The two countries are always in touch regarding coordinating effective approaches towards the nuclear issue in the Korean Peninsula, and the Iranian nuclear issue, and the Syrian issue, climate change, and Internet security, as well as other topics. The two sides will establish a system based on positive interaction, in which cooperation will override competition in the Asia–Pacific. We hope that the Pacific will become a region governed by a new type of relationship between superpowers. It can be said that the relationship between the two countries is on the verge of even better opportunities for further development. China and the United States are two large countries with differing social systems, histories and cultures. They are at two different stages of development. So there are differences, and naturally there will be problems and challenges in the relations between them. Addressing these will require deliberate and sound policies on both sides.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States. During this period, the relationship has made monumental progress and overcome many difficulties and obstacles. The most important conclusion to be drawn from these experiences is the need to respect the core interests and major concerns of each side, as well as their sovereignty and integrity of land. There must also be respect for their social systems and the road to development chosen by each side, lest the Chinese be subjected to interference and sabotage. We are ready to make joint efforts with the United States to establish a new type of relationship between major countries. We want to work to enhance communication, coordination, and cooperation in all fields, and to find appropriate solutions to differences and sensitive issues. We hope to advance Sino–US relations so as to achieve healthy and stable development. This will be best for the two peoples and the peoples of the world.

Q: One last question, what is your take on the current tensions in Sino–Japanese relations?

This tension is not desirable. However, it is the result of repeated provocative steps taken by the Japanese affecting longstanding disputes as the issue of the Diaoyu Islands. Not long ago, the Japanese leadership insisted on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which controversially commemorates war criminals of World War II, which brought on worldwide condemnation. This does not seriously impair the political foundation of Sino–Japanese relations, but it does hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, in addition to reducing the mutual trust between the countries on the political and security level, which does not help peace and stability in the region. It has raised caution levels in neighboring countries and in the international community.

We are committed to peace. And we are committed to a policy of friendship and partnership with neighboring countries. We always call for the development of friendly relations, cooperation, and good, neighborly conduct between our country and Japan. We operate on the basis of the principles contained in the four political documents between the two countries, and aim to capitalize on our great spirit of history as we turn toward the future. For many years we have made great efforts to strengthen our relations with Tokyo. We urge the Japanese side to correct its position on issues related to history and territory, and to refrain from provocative steps. It must change its approach, and gain the trust of its Asian neighbors through concrete actions. It must play a constructive role in maintaining peace and stability in the region.

Indian FM: We have friendly relations with all Gulf states

Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat in his office in New Delhi on February 27, 2014. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat in his office in New Delhi on February 27, 2014. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

New Delhi, Asharq Al-Awsat—It was five in the evening when Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid sat down for an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat. It was a friendly and open meeting, taking place at Khurshid’s office at India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

The minister is perched at the summit of Raisina Hill in Dehli, which is also home to the Indian Presidency, the Office of the Prime Minister, and the Defense Ministry. The majority of government buildings in New Dehli, a modern district at the heart of the larger Dehli metropolis, were built by the British before India’s independence in 1947. Not far over the horizon is the India Gate, designed by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.

It was here that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Salman Bin Abdulaziz, met with India’s deputy prime minister and its defense minister on Wednesday. Part of an official state visit to India by the Crown Prince, his visit, which ends Friday, boosted relations between the two countries.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the sidelines of Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s visit to India, Foreign Minister Khurshid highlighted the recent defense cooperation agreement signed by New Delhi and Riyadh, spoke about India’s intentions to improve energy cooperation with the Kingdom, and put forward India’s view on a number of major regional concerns, not least the ongoing Syrian conflict and the Iranian nuclear project.

Salman Khurshid earned a BA from St Stephen’s College Delhi and an MA from St Edmund Hall, Oxford University. He later served as President of the Delhi Public School Society from 1995–2005. He began his political career working in the office of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and subsequently held a number of ministerial portfolios, including Foreign Minister (1991–1996) and later Minister for Minority Affairs and Corporate Affairs.

Asharq Al-Awsat: What would you say about King Abdullah’s 2006 visit to India which was reciprocated by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2012. How do you view Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz’s current visit to India?

Salman Khurshid: There is something very interesting I would like share with you. Our current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, visited Saudi Arabia as finance minister under the then-Congress prime minister, Narsimha Rao, nearly two decades ago. After his return, we had a chat where he sounded very bubbly about the transformation the Kingdom was witnessing, with its youth going to the world’s best universities, making a significant change in Saudi society. The enthusiastic Dr. Singh then announced that he was amazed to see the new Saudi Arabia. A completely new, educated and professional generation is building it progressively and shedding its traditional image.

Back then, Dr. Singh stressed that India needed to rebuild and re-discover its relationship with the Kingdom, since Saudi Arabia provided an excellent opportunity to do business. But, unfortunately, both countries lost momentum, as each was wrapped up in individual regional tensions that erased the precious 20 years of mutual relations between two nations.

Moreover, since Saudi Arabia has a close relationship with Pakistan, it was difficult for it to take sides in the India–Pakistan confrontation. We could say that the Kingdom was in limbo; that it had to choose between two friends. But, over the years, both countries decided to look beyond their disagreements and work towards building their relationship further in the changing world.

During my recent visit to the Kingdom I met the Interior Minister, who is a remarkable man. He categorically told me that nobody [will ever be allowed to] harm India from Saudi soil in any way. He shared with me that whenever he comes across a person who is an extremist or working against the establishment, he calls up his family [the extremist’s family] and tells his parents that he is going to save their son and not put him in prison. This demonstrates a great foresightedness on his part; he is a man who is greatly admired for his efforts to win back the confidence of the estranged youth even though he himself survived an attack.

So we can say both countries over the past eight or nine years have genuinely reinvested in their mutual relationship. Although the problems of Pakistan, Palestine and Syria still remain unresolved, the countries have evolved a better understanding. I am happy that we have made significant strides in all areas of our bilateral engagement. Our economic engagement has grown rapidly in the past few years, with bilateral trade reaching 43 billion US dollars in 2012–2013. Yet this is far below the potential that exists in our relationship. We need to diversify our trade relations. We need to focus on non-oil trade as well. During the recent Joint Commission meeting, our two sides came up with an agenda that aims to double our two-way trade in five years. We also need to work towards deeper economic engagement, including through more investments, joint ventures and technology transfers.

Q: What would you say about the Defense Cooperation Agreement the two sides have signed? What are the future prospects for it?

I am happy that we signed the defense Memorandum of Understanding with Saudi Arabia. It will help defense personnel work closely and learn from the experience of one another.

The two sides have already been co-operating on intelligence sharing and continuing dialogue on counter-terrorism, but defense cooperation is something specific. Again, I would stress that it should not be merely buyer-seller, but rather go beyond this to see the two sides working on training, joint production and military exercises.

But that does not mean we are going to replace the US [in terms of defense cooperation]. I was specifically asked whether India would step in if the US leaves, but I categorically refused to even consider the idea saying that the US and India have different roles to play. We are indeed supportive of friends of the US, but have no inclination or capacity to station our troops or navy where the US has currently engaged its troops. However, to supplement and compliment anything that Saudi Arabia is doing with US, we are willing to cooperate in fields of training, joint weapons production, visits of naval ships, and joint exercises. This would mean that we would have strategic relationship and learn more about our defense perceptions. India wants to build defense cooperation in such a way that the Arab world or the GCC countries become self-sufficient and need no external military assistance.

Q: The Saudi–India Extradition Treaty of 2010 has helped build trust between our two countries. In 2012 the Kingdom extradited three Indian terrorists under the auspices of that treaty, including one who masterminded the 2008 attacks on Mumbai. How do you think the two countries can cooperate further in countering terrorism?

It was an evolutionary treaty between the two sides and has become a critical foundation of our collaboration and cooperation. We have suffered immensely from terrorism. Our security concerns are yet another reason for closer cooperation between our two countries. The growing turbulence in our shared region makes this cooperation even more urgent. Our two sides have been cooperating in the fight against international terrorism, money laundering, narcotics, and arms and human trafficking.

The Kingdom has been extremely determined to make some very difficult extraditions to India without crying much over them. You know extradition is never an easy thing. One is caught in a dilemma: first, you have to satisfy the country you are extraditing to and, second, your home constituency where you are extraditing from—it’s a critical situation. Thus, it requires a tremendous level of determination and mutual faith between the two nations and there can be no doubt that India owes the Kingdom for undertaking some critical extraditions.

Q: Let us now turn to the economy, what would you say about the renewed economic and business cooperation between two countries over the years?

A healthier understanding of each other’s regional political compulsions has facilitated a new era of business and economic cooperation between the two nations. From an Indian point of view, we don’t want to build just a buyer–seller relationship based on oil, but rather two-way trade, weaving a basket filled with trade and investments. Taking a leap towards that, Tata Motors have already set up a Jaguar plant in the Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia has smartly invested in the Bangalore Research Center. Thus, I can proudly emphasize that relation between the two leader nations is multi-level with immense sincerity on each side to take it to a much higher level.

From an Indian perspective, I would say that we highly value the visit of Crown Prince Salman to India. We will sincerely endeavor to strengthen our ties further with the Kingdom on all fronts. Furthermore, India has a vital stake in the Middle East, with over 7 million Indian nationals living and working there and sending back remittances of over 30 billion US dollars every year. The Middle East is our largest regional trading bloc, with two-way annual trade in excess of 180 billion US dollars.

Q: India sources approximately 60 percent of its energy needs from Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia, equivalent to nearly 44 billion US dollars’ worth of oil and gas products annually. What steps could India take to further improve trade with the Kingdom?

Saudi Arabia continues to be our most important source of energy. We need to transform our buyer–seller relationship into one of deeper energy partnership, through investments in petrochemical complexes, modernization of facilities, and joint ventures not only bilaterally, but also in third countries. We also need to expand our non-oil trade. Our bilateral non-oil trade was 8.7 billion US dollars in 2012–2013.

Q: What about India’s future energy needs? Does India hope to look beyond Saudi Arabia to meet them?

We have to formulate our energy security policy on the basis of the biting reality that would fulfill our energy security needs. Unless there is a dramatic shift on renewable energy, India could never unilaterally fulfill its own energy needs. After the Japan incident, a lot of insecurities have cropped up among the masses about the nuclear energy projects in India. So we would continue to depend on our traditional energy suppliers though we have cut down on supplies from Iran for obvious reasons beyond our control, and we appreciate Saudi Arabia’s support. We indeed would anticipate energy requirements from Saudi Arabia and also look forward to major supplies in gas from Canada. There are possibilities in the Central Asian region if the pipelines come to India, such the Iran, Oman and Uzbekistan pipelines. There are opportunities, but a sensible approach would be to keep a balance between various sources of energy and not to depend on any one single thing.

We would like to build a relationship with Saudi Arabia in the fields of renewable energy, like solar and wind energy, besides hydrocarbons. And, as Saudi Arabia has already initiated a major research in solar energy, we both can collaborate on clean energy projects.

Q: Let us now turn to regional issues, where do Indian–Pakistani relations currently stand?

India desires peaceful, friendly and cooperative relations with Pakistan. We are committed to resolving all outstanding issues with Pakistan, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, through bilateral dialogue on the basis of the Simla Agreement. For that to happen, there needs to be an environment free from terror and violence.

We are still hoping that words are matched with deeds. Though there have been many difficult times. We want to live in peace with Pakistan, and of course peaceful India–Pakistan relations envisage a peaceful South Asia. We have told them to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on their home soil. On that, they may say they are also victims of terrorism but that does not help us, since we are victimized. We want Pakistan to work seriously on terrorism and accountability for what happened in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. We would like Pakistan to expedite the cases they have initiated against those responsible for the Mumbai terror attacks using Pakistani soil. If Pakistan works sincerely towards this, it would help confidence-building between our two nations.

Q: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is also visiting India this week. How does India view its relations with Iran, particularly given they have been strained over the past couple of years?

India maintains friendly relations with all countries in the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both countries are an integral part of our economic and security space, and both play a significant role in our energy security architecture.

We have been consistent with regards to our policy on Iran. We share a special relationship with the Persian country, which is a part of our extended neighborhood: our neighborhood stops at Afghanistan, and beyond that is Iran. We believe they have a larger role to play in Afghanistan despite our differences with them or with other nations of the Arab world. India believes that despite all these differences Iran can’t be ignored. They have already suffered a lot over the years because of sanctions, and we are happy that they have reached an agreement with the US. There was an unending race for nuclear prowess and now, at least, that’s been slowed down or stopped. There are lots of doubts in the Arab world regarding what America is offering, but we must work towards a nuclear-free Middle East. It is to the benefit of the Arab world that Iran does not have nuclear weapons, though it should have the right to use it [nuclear technology] for peaceful purposes, as we do.

The difference between them and us is that they signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty while we didn’t, and we believe that if you sign an international document, you should abide by it. We have told them this. Initially, they found it difficult to understand what we were saying, but over a period of time they understood that we were sincerely saying this in their interest. We want to see them grow and be at peace with all their neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, and if there are some doubts and suspicions, they must be cleared up through peaceful dialogue.

Q: What about the fighting in Syria?

To be honest, our job in Syria has only been to call on the parties to stop fighting. We have been saying that frequently, and we were invited to the conference in Geneva. The fact is that talking helps and that nothing after talking is bad. We are still saying, ‘Please stop the killing first, and then negotiate.’

It’s sad for the Arab world that Syria continues to simmer. We are stakeholders in the Middle East, and we are also suffering from the Syrian turmoil, since 6 million Indians are present in the Gulf region. What happens to Arabs also happens our people, and so we hope that the turmoil ends soon.

Q: India’s relations with the Gulf are much closer than those it has with Southeast Asia, yet the Gulf does not resonate as much as Southeast Asia in India’s foreign policy. What do you think are the reasons for this?

I have already outlined India’s vital stakes in its close relationship with the Gulf countries. Similarly, countries in Southeast Asia are in our extended neighborhood. Our “Look East” policy has been an unqualified success, and our relationship [with Southeast Asia] has progressed immensely in the past decade. Similarly, maintaining our close ties with the Gulf countries also appears very high on our list of foreign policy [priorities]. Our intense bilateral dialogue is evident from the fact that in the past nine months, four heads of state or government from these countries [in the Gulf] have visited us.

Q: What would the Indian stance be on the US threat to leave Afghanistan without signing any pact with the Afghan government?

There is a big challenge for negotiating peace in Afghanistan, and for us the sovereignty of the country is paramount. We also know that military intervention is not a solution, since if this were the case then the Afghan issue would have been resolved over the past 12 years. We think it would not be a good idea for the US to leave Afghanistan at such a critical moment unless the Afghan people want this. There are some issues that Americans and President Karzai have amongst themselves and we hope that they resolve them amicably.

There should not be a vacuum. The defense and security forces of Afghanistan are already sharing a big responsibility, and we hope the Afghans work together towards peace. If they need any help from India, we are there. We are already cooperating with them in training and capacity-building, as well as providing adequate infrastructure in developing roads, dams, power transmission and railway projects.

India does not have an exit policy from Afghanistan and we would continue to support Afghans in a way they want us to. We want all countries around Afghanistan to make a contribution in building Afghanistan so that it succeeds. In addition, India and Pakistan do not have to see Afghanistan as a battleground on which to settle their scores. We hope Pakistan understands that we are not in Afghanistan to exclude them from the country as a strong Afghanistan benefits Pakistan.

In Conversation with Japan’s Foreign Minister

File photo of Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
File photo of Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
File photo of Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Tokyo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Japanese Muslims first visited Saudi Arabia in 1909 to perform the hajj. Since then Saudi–Japanese ties have strengthened and deepened into the comprehensive partnership that exists between the two countries today.

In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida highlighted the ties between Tokyo and Riyadh, confirming that cooperation between the two countries now extends to all fields. Kishida added that Saudi–Japanese cooperation will only increase in the years to come, adding that Tokyo also aims to meet its international obligations in terms of resolving the Syrian crisis and Iranian nuclear file.

Kishida spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat on the sidelines of Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s state visit to Japan.

Asharq Al-Awsat: Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz made a historic visit to Japan last week, concluding agreements and meeting with a number of senior Japanese officials. What is your view of the visit and its significance for the relationship between the two countries?

Fumio Kishida: The Japanese people know that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is rich in natural resources. They also know that it appeared in the movie Lawrence of Arabia and that it is also home to the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. With the broadening and deepening relationship between the two countries, the Japanese people have begun to know more about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over the past years, and that it is a country rich in culture and natural scenery. These are very attractive characteristics, and have served to further impress the people of Japan.

Japan and Saudi Arabia have developed good relations since 1955, when the two countries established diplomatic ties on the basis of energy cooperation. Today, the two countries are seeking to strengthen their comprehensive partnership to cover the cultural, economic and political sectors.

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia between April 30 and May 1, 2013, he and Crown Prince Salman agreed to build relations on all levels, not just in the energy sector. The Crown Prince’s visit will open a new phase in Japanese–Saudi bilateral relations. Japan also attaches historical importance to this visit, viewing it as an occasion to achieve tangible progress between the Saudi Arabian and Japanese peoples and governments and thus establish a comprehensive partnership.

Japan also intends to consolidate cooperation with the Kingdom in terms of dealing with Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian crisis. Japan is seeking to positively contribute to achieving more stability and peace in the world, including in the Middle East on the basis of the principle of “proactive contribution,” based on international cooperation. Therefore Japan cannot dispense with its cooperation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, given that it is the main Middle Eastern country that is playing a key role in securing stability and peace in the region.

In the economic sector, Japan imports approximately 33 percent of its crude oil needs from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which it considers to be one of its most important commercial partners. In addition to this, we look forward to cooperating with Saudi Arabia and further developing relations between the two countries to serve the interests and improve the welfare of the two peoples. Our cooperation with the Kingdom does not just cover the energy sector, but also the investment and industry sectors, development of small and medium-sized enterprises and infrastructure, nuclear energy, and cultural and humanitarian exchanges. We will also strengthen education cooperation by establishing student exchange programs, pushing for dialogue between youth, and sports exchange programs.

Q: What is your view of the historical relationship between Saudi Arabia and Japan?

The history of exchange between the two countries dates back to 1909, when Japanese Muslims first went on pilgrimage to Mecca. During the next hundred years, particularly after World War II and the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1955, friendly relations and mutual understanding were built on the national level between these two geographically, culturally and religiously different states.

The relationship between the Saudi royal family and the Japanese imperial dynasty played a significant and axial role in propelling national relations between the two countries. King Faisal Bin Abdulaziz visited Japan in 1971 following an official invitation [from the Emperor]. In 1981, the Japanese Emperor—who was the Crown Prince at the time—visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 1994, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was the first foreign country that the Japanese Crown Prince visited with the Crown Princess following their marriage. Ever since then, the Saudi and Japanese Crown Princes have enjoyed a friendly relationship. The Japanese Crown Prince visited Saudi Arabia to express his condolences when former Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, may he rest in peace, died in 2011, and when Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abdulaziz, may he rest in peace, died in 2012.

This friendship must be maintained by means of national cooperation between the two countries in all domains. This is not to mention the historical links between the Japanese Imperial dynasty and the Saudi royal family, which must be transferred to the next generations in both countries.

Q: There are aspirations and ambitions in both Japan and Saudi Arabia to increase bilateral investment and trade. What steps will contribute to achieving this goal?

Saudi Arabia was ranked 22nd out of 183 countries in term of “ease of doing business,” according to the “Doing Business 2013” report issued by the World Bank. In addition to this, it has become possible to establish companies with 100 percent foreign capital in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia thanks to the Foreign Investment Law of 2000, while the agreement for the avoidance of double taxation between Japan and Saudi Arabia came into effect in 2011. As a result of all this, the number of Japanese companies in Saudi Arabia now stands at 92.

By benefiting from these features, both countries are working to improve the atmosphere in order to help stimulate trade and investment between the two countries. More specifically, in April 2013 Saudi Arabia and Japan signed an agreement to stimulate and protect joint investment in order to encourage more Japanese companies to expand their operations into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

As for the private sector, the Saudi–Japanese Business Council also signed an agreement on February 18, 2014. Businessmen from both countries met to hold constructive discussions on ways to improve the business environment and encourage joint investment. Japanese companies have a strong desire [to contribute to] large infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia, such as water and sanitation projects, as well as railway projects. What is required is to develop cooperation in these fields in the near future.

Q: Japan is working to increase its investments in Saudi Arabia through a number of projects, and it is also involved in training and educating Saudi youth, with some 400 Saudi students studying in the country. How can we strengthen these ties in light of the already-close relations between Saudi Arabia and Japan?

Japan is actively participating in developing human resources in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in order to contribute to promoting economic development and industrial diversity. To be specific, we are supporting the development of human resources via training institutes such as the Saudi–Japanese Automobile High Institute in Jeddah, the Saudi Electronics and Home Appliances Institute in Riyadh, and the Higher Institute for Plastic Fabrications in Riyadh. This is part of technical cooperation between the public and private sectors.

In addition to this, we are seeking to provide strong support to develop small- and medium-sized projects in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Japan wants to promote technical cooperation according to the needs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, taking advantage of the framework known as “technical cooperation based on cost-sharing,” which is implemented by the Japanese Agency for International Cooperation.

Q: How does Japan regard the situation in the Middle East? How does it view the situation in Syria in light of the ongoing conflict there? How does Tokyo view the Iranian nuclear file?

I am of the view that the situation in Syria is very dangerous. More than 110,000 people have been killed so far on Syrian territory, and more than 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced. As for the number of refugees who have fled the country, this now stands at more than 2.4 million. In order to deal with this situation, Japan has committed to providing humanitarian aid to Syria and its neighboring countries worth more than 400 million US dollars. As I said at the Geneva II conference that was held in January, Japan strongly hopes to see the return of a beautiful Syria, and that is why my country is taking part in the international community’s efforts to bear responsibility. I believe that our participation in humanitarian assistance and political dialogue is important and is in accordance with our policy of “proactive contribution to peace.”

As for the Iranian nuclear issue, Japan welcomes the agreement between the EU3+3 [the P5+1] and Iran as a big step towards reaching a comprehensive solution on this issue. It is important to exert more effort to implement this deal and conclude a final agreement. It is beneficial for peace and stability in the Middle East, and the world at large, for Iran to become a force that contributes to stability by allaying the doubts of the Arab Gulf states. This is important not just at the level of the Middle East, but at the international level as well. In this regard, since President Hassan Rouhani took office Japan has always urged Iran to be flexible. Japan is eager to work on this issue based on our traditionally close bilateral relations with Iran, and in cooperation with the E3+3.

Scenes from Islamabad

File photo of King Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
File photo of King Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s visit to Pakistan—the first stop on his current tour of Asia—was an expression of Islamabad’s importance as a close ally of the Kingdom for over six decades, confirming its pivotal role in the region.

Pakistan’s reception of the Crown Prince was remarkable. Aside from the usual reception procedures and state banquets, the agenda was full of high-level meetings with senior Pakistani officials and the signings of a number of agreements. Pakistani officials also expressed significant gratitude to King Abdullah for the relief the Kingdom provided to the victims of the earthquake that hit Pakistan in 2005.

Saudi–Pakistani relations are truly interesting, particularly to Western analysts and observers. Relations between the two countries go beyond normal levels, and that is reflected in a number of different fields. There are more than 2 million Pakistani migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. The commercial exchange between the two countries reached 111 billion Saudi riyals (29.5 billion US dollars) between 2003 and 2012, reaching a peak of 16.3 billion Saudi riyals (4.3 billion US dollars). At the lowest point during this period, 2003, commercial exchange stood at 4.2 billion Saudi riyals (1.1 billion US dollars), according to an economic report produced by the Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper.

More than this, there has also been an excellent level of military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, particularly in training military personnel. As part of the reciprocal military cooperation between Riyadh and Islamabad, more than 1,200 Pakistani training officers are operating in different military and security sectors in Saudi Arabia. There are also Pakistani training officers working with the security apparatus affiliated to the Saudi Interior Ministry, and others working within the armed forces sector.

And this historic relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is not limited to the military and economic sectors; it covers a number of other fields.

But what distinguishes the relationship between the two countries, particularly these days, is their shared political vision on a number of issues in spite of the various transformative political phases Pakistan has passed through since 1947. One can say that the shared mutual interests between the two countries have remained the same. Saudi Arabia views Pakistan as its strategic depth in Asia. At the same time, Islamabad views Saudi Arabia as the most significant Islamic country in the Arab Gulf; Saudi Arabia is its gateway to the Arab world.

For this reason, the firm relationship between Riyadh and Islamabad becomes the subject of speculation and rumors every now and then, with false stories circulating in the Western press every time officials from the two countries exchange visits.

During this visit, every military figure I spoke to referred to two historic moments in the history of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. One official affirmed that these two incidents live long in the memory of the people and government of Pakistan.

One Pakistani military official explained: “In 1998, when we defended our right to possess nuclear weapons and establish a strategic balance after our neighbors in India tested their nuclear bombs on May 11 and 13, 1998, we were abandoned by everyone except Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom stood with us and supported our right to possess these strategic weapons. Then, when we were military exposed, Saudi Arabia helped us—after we were abandoned by the Soviet Union.”

It is not difficult for visitors to Pakistan to notice the structural economic problems that have been accumulating over the past decades. In light of the political and security situation in Pakistan over the past few years, these problems have only been exacerbated and complicated.

Nevertheless, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has confirmed that Pakistan’s economy has started to show signs of recovery, thanks to the reformative steps taken by Nawaz Sharif’s government. This has been reiterated by the country’s Minister of Finance, Ishaq Dar, who stressed that his government’s reformative agenda is bearing fruit, with the economy enjoying 0.5 percent growth in the first quarter of the current financial year. The Pakistan Central Bank has predicted that the country’s economy will achieve a growth rate of four percent in 2013–2014, an increase from the 3.6 percent growth rate recorded in the 2012–2013 financial year.

At Nur Khan Airbase

The Crown Prince’s plane landed at Nur Khan Airbase at around 6:00 am local time. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif received the Saudi Crown Prince and the accompanying delegation in a spirit of warmth and friendship. When the Crown Prince stepped off the plane there was a 21-gun salute, and then the Saudi and Pakistani national anthems were played as the Crown Prince reviewed the honor guard and shook hands with a number of senior Pakistani officials, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Rashad Mahmood.

The weather was warmer than expected. The road from the airbase to Punjab House, where the Crown Prince and the Saudi delegation were staying, was expected to be empty, but both sides of the street were adorned with portraits of the Saudi Crown Prince and the Pakistani president.

Punjab House Palace is a beautiful, elegant building designed by well-known Pakistani architect Nayyar Ali Dada. Born Nayyar Ali Zaidi in 1943, Dada is considered one of Asia’s most prominent architects. The palace is located in a green area in the northern part of Islamabad. Distinguished by its white colour and symmetrical, elegant lines, the palace overlooks vast green swathes of the northern parts of this young and modern capital city.

Negotiations with the Taliban

Islamabad is holding difficult negotiations with the Taliban. On Wednesday, the Taliban offered a ceasefire aimed at resuming the stalled peace talks in exchange for guarantees that the Pakistani army would not attack its positions.

On Monday, the government suspended talks with the insurgents after a Taliban-affiliated militia claimed the killing of 23 Pakistani soldiers kidnapped in June 2010. Islamabad immediately ordered the suspension of talks with the Taliban.

Since Sharif launched the peace process in late January, at least 70 Pakistanis have been killed in attacks by Taliban.

As a condition for peace, the Pakistani Taliban is demanding the release of members who are currently detained, the army’s withdrawal from the tribal regions—a stronghold for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in northwestern Pakistan—and the imposition of its interpretation of Islamic Shari’a Law. Some of these demands are unacceptable in the eyes of the Pakistani government and military establishment.

Furthermore, the prospect of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan has created an oppressive atmosphere at the negotiations that may push them to failure. Despite the resumption of talks, few observers are optimistic about their success.

The Ahmadiyya File

The jihadist issue in Pakistan has its roots and repercussions, particularly in the border areas.

In her 2008 book, Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, Ayesha Jalal deals with the large-scale protests help by people calling for the Ahmadis to be declared non-Muslims. The Ahmadiyya sect was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in the 19th century; that is to say, a long time before the establishment of Pakistan. The protestors aimed in part to create a state of turmoil within the federal government of Pakistan by demanding the resignation of then man who was then Pakistan’s foreign minister, an Ahmadi called Muhammad Zafrulla.

In that tense atmosphere, two federal judges issued a security report warning of the destructive ideologies emerging in the fledgling country.

Their findings, known as the Munir report, appealed to the government to refrain from declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims. They warned that the government having the right to determine who is Muslim and who is not would encourage takfirism and calls for partition in a manner that contradicted Pakistani founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of a unified country.

“The result of this part of inquiry, however, has been anything but satisfactory, and if considerable confusion exists in the minds of our ulama [religious scholars] on such a simple matter, one can easily imagine what the differences on more complicated matters will be . . . Keeping in view the several different definitions given by the ulama, need we make any comment except that no two learned divines are agreed on this fundamental [principle]. If we attempt our own definition, as each learned divine has done, and that definition differs from those given by all others, we unanimously go out of the fold of Islam. And if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulama, we remain Muslims according to the view of that alim [religious scholar], but kafirs [unbelievers] according to the definitions of everyone else,” the report said.

In a similar case following the first presidential elections in Pakistan in 1965—in Muhammad Ayub Khan’s era—Khan’s allies tried to weaken and damage the reputation of his main rival, Fatimah Jinnah. They attacked Jinnah, the sister of Pakistan’s founder, by issuing a fatwa banning the appointment of a woman as president. This same claim was repeated decades later when Benazir Bhutto became the country’s first female prime minister.

Attempts to use Islam as a tool to delegitimize certain political actors or organizations—whether the Ahmadis or others—have led to the emergence of terrible and lethal ideological currents in Pakistan, encouraging the phenomenon of takfirism and extremists using violence to kill anyone they view as being infidels.

Opinion: McCain, Zarif and Saudi Arabia

During a joint discussion session held recently by John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, the US secretaries of state and defense respectively, the American officials defended the Obama administration from claims that the US was in retreat, which was a subject of discussion at the Munich Security Conference.

John Kerry said, “All we did was withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan according to prior agreements . . . We’re involved with the Emirates, with the Saudi Arabians, and others working with respect to Egypt and Egypt’s transition.”

Hagel went further when he said, “The United States is more present doing more things in more places today than maybe ever before. How we’re doing it is differently, and it’s what I talked about, what John talked about—capacity-building for our partners, working closer with our partners, being able to do more as we are more creative with these initiatives.”

The summary of the comments of the two secretaries is that Obama’s administration relies less on military force and more on diplomacy.

Is this argument convincing? Senator John McCain is not convinced; he even rejects the explanation. “We are retreating,” he said. According to McCain, the US have let down its allies in the region, and let them go their own way. “Thank God for our friends,” he said, referring to the Saudis and Emiratis, who helped the Syrian opposition at a time when the Geneva talks failed.

McCain feels that the Obama administration is overly optimistic about Iran’s commitment to any serious nuclear agreement, and that it is enough to look at the history of the regime, which is full of deceit, to realize that fact.

But McCain’s warnings fell on deaf ears. Watching the fringe meetings between Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, one realizes that the administration is not only too optimistic, it also has a reason for that optimism. One of the popular explanations is that President Obama wants to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough akin to what Richard Nixon did with China in 1972, especially with the decline of the United States in more than one foreign arena, and the low confidence Americans have in his foreign policy.

Of course, those who believe this view stress that Obama realizes that the Iranian nuclear program can only be stopped by force—an unlikely option because of the popular objection to new wars. That is why Obama hopes the openness to Iran will contribute to freezing the nuclear program at the point where it has mastered uranium enrichment technology. Iran’s reward then would be acceptance into the nuclear club. As the Nixon administration tried to recognize Taiwan as part of China, the current administration is hoping for the relationship of enmity to change through implicit recognition by the US of Iran’s right to nuclear technology, regardless of the aims of their nuclear program.

There is another explanation for this rush towards Iran, which is that Obama wants to push the Iranian issue back to after midterm Congressional elections in November, as there is no desire among the Democrats to raise the nuclear issue at this stage. There is also a belief that foreign affairs have drained the administration’s energy in recent years, when their focus should have been on internal issues such as the economy. The continuation of the confrontation with Iran, for example on the Syrian front, may force the Americans into the region’s quagmires again.

Whatever the reasons, the Iranians are happy with what is happening. It is enough to talk to Foreign Minister Zarif and his delegation to realize this openness has provided them with breathing space for the first time since the start of the banking sanctions less than two years ago, and it has restored confidence in Iranian diplomacy after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1803, which restricted the travel of Iranian officials linked to the nuclear program. The Iranian negotiator today feels he is in a strong position, especially as the openness and suspension of some of the sanctions has not come through any public concessions on the part of Iran, while they were prepared to take such steps during the negotiations.

Zarif looked confident in his dialogue about Iran’s full implementation of its obligations in the first phase, and told the audience that he had met Kerry to discuss the next steps. He may have had reason for that confidence, as beside him sat the Swedish foreign minister and US Senator Christopher Murphy, a Democrat who supports Obama’s policy towards Iran. Zarif did not miss the opportunity to point to regional and Gulf states that have started to change their stances, and he said he was looking forward to visiting Saudi Arabia.

I asked the Iranian minister what he wanted to take to Saudi Arabia. He said: “I expressed my desire to visit Saudi Arabia a few months ago, and I still look forward to doing that. We have many interests we can discuss. We do not want to compete with Saudi Arabia. We want dialogue between the two countries to restore security in the region.”

It is clear that what is preventing the minister’s visit is not the lack of Saudi agreement—his initiative was welcomed—but the lack of readiness on the Iranian side to discuss the real reasons for their differences, at least so far.