• The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, is visiting the United Kingdom. How do you assess the relationship between the two countries?
Saudi Arabia is an important partner and ally in the Middle East and recent years have seen this relationship broaden and deepen. This is demonstrated by the sheer range of our bilateral political, security and commercial discussions. Our two countries have a long history of friendship and cooperation. This visit is an opportunity to look ahead and plot the course of this relationship in the coming years.
• This is the first state visit for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia since ascending the throne what do you think his leadership and your new leadership means for cooperation between your two countries?
This visit presents us with the opportunity to discuss innovative responses to the challenges which face us today; promoting global trade, confronting extremism, nuclear proliferation, conflict resolution, and climate change. These are all challenges which require close international cooperation and I am pleased to say that we have similar objectives to our Saudi partners. The question is how we jointly use our assets and influence to effectively tackle these challenges to achieve our shared aim of working towards a more peaceful, just and prosperous future.
• There are many developments in the Middle East, the Gulf and elsewhere that impact both countries, what are your priorities in the region today?
Tragically, the Middle East suffers from more than its fair share of crises and conflicts. Saudi Arabia has on a number of recent occasions led the way in efforts to create meaningful progress on these issues. The Arab Peace Initiative remains an important framework towards a just and lasting peace. Saudi engagement on the Iranian nuclear issue is critically important. I applaud Saudi efforts to promote political reconciliation in Iraq, Lebanon and amongst the Palestinians.
These issues are also major UK priorities. We have benefited greatly from Saudi views and initiatives on them. The coming months may well be critical, looking forward to the Annapolis Summit, developments in the Iranian nuclear issue and our changing role in Iraq. We regard a close working relationship with Saudi Arabia in these areas as essential.
• You have announced troop reduction in Basra and hence indicated your desire for complete withdrawal from Iraq- do you feel it is now time for disengaging from Iraq?
This is not about disengaging with Iraq. I have made clear our longstanding commitment to support the Iraqi people. However, there was never a desire on either side for Iraqis to be dependent on our military support in the long term, and therefore, as the conditions allow and Iraqi forces demonstrate their readiness to occupy these roles which they have in their rapidly developing operational capabilities it is only right that we gradually pass over control to them. At the same time, our role has never been a purely military one. As I have stated on several occasions, our vital work to promote political reconciliation, institutional reform and economic growth are long-term commitments which we certainly have no intention of disengaging from.
• How much of the UK’s focus have now shifted to ‘save’ Afghanistan rather than Iraq is that the ‘winnable’ war?
The circumstances in both countries are incomparably different and I reject any suggestion that calculations for changes in troop numbers in Iraq are in any way influenced by developing needs in Afghanistan. Experts I have spoken to who understand the situation in Afghanistan, including President Karzai just a few days ago, have made it very clear that the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is winnable, but we should not be complacent, because lessons in other parts of the world have proved that what we need is sustained commitment.
Our approach is that this is not primarily a military effort. Rather, success is about creating the momentum towards development and progress so that the backward-looking vision of the Taliban and their attempts to terrorize the local population cannot gain a foothold. That is why the thrust of our approach is more about reconstruction, reconciliation, counter-narcotics and economic development.
• The UK is in favour of Turkey’s accession to the EU however Turkey today threatens to go into Iraq not heeding the pleas of the EU. How problematic are these threats to efforts of bringing Turkey into the European fold?
We recognize Turkey’s security concerns and I discussed this in detail with Prime Minister Erdogan last week. However, we also made very clear the importance of Iraqi sovereignty and not doing anything which would adversely affect Iraq’s stability which is clearly not in the interests of Turkey. The UK has been working hard with its other close partners in bringing about a solution and ensuring that all parties including the Iraqi government do their utmost to resolve this peacefully and diplomatically.
Clearly Turkey has a number of criteria to meet towards membership of the EU – one element of which concerns the resolution of outstanding issues in the south of the country. As one of the key advocates of Turkish membership to the EU, Britain wants Turkey to demonstrate that it can meet such criteria in full.
• Iran is increasingly causing concern internationally how concerned are you by Iran’s commitment to develop its nuclear program?
It is clear to me that these are not just British or “Western” concerns as the Iranian regime would like to claim, but represent the concerns of the entire civilized world. The Saudi state visit will be an opportunity to raise this with a leading regional actor as part of ensuring an international coordinated effort on this issue.
• There is more of a focus now on Iran’s “sponsorship of terror” according to some American and British circles is this now the greater problem related to Iran?
Both nuclear proliferation and sponsorship of terrorism are both highly significant and dangerous matters. In the case of Iran’s support for armed groups working against stability and moderation we are merely echoing strong regional concerns in this regard. We strongly urge Iran that instead of providing military support for groups dedicated to violence or undermining domestic stability, its interests would be much better served by working with the international community to promote peace, reconciliation and moderation in the Middle East.
• Lebanon is one problem area what role can the UK play in helping the political process and upholding democracy in Lebanon?
In the context of the Saudi visit, Saudi Arabia has done more than most to promote political reconciliation and dialogue between different Lebanese groups. Needless to say, we fully support these efforts in assisting the Lebanese themselves to overcome these various political differences.
• How do you view Syria’s role in this regard? Do you share the American view that Syria is interfering in Iraq?
We have always made it very clear to Syria that the government faces a strategic choice; either wholehearted participation in efforts to work towards peace and progress in the region, or continuing to isolate itself by support for those who advocate violent solutions and an unpromising future for the region of continued instability and under-performance. We look to President Bashar al Asad to take the wise choice, beginning with a positive stance regarding the best opportunity for moving the peace process forward in six years.
• Are you optimistic about the peace conference due to be held in the US in November? What grounds for peace in the region with the turmoil in the Palestinian territories?
We are working hard to ensure that the opportunity which this conference presents is fully grasped by all sides. The Saudis have done more than many over recent years to get us to where we are today. While and agree with their concerns that this summit having a meaningful impact, we see an engaged Saudi role as key to helping bring about the success of this.