Q) First of all, where are Saudi-Iraqi relations heading in light of the state of stagnation that has beset them for quite sometime?
A) Relations between Iraq and the kingdom have suffered through “lean years” and now we need to activate them. This takes time. The circumstances through which we are passing may make this process harder. However, there are other circumstances pushing in the opposite direction that should strengthen Iraqi-Saudi relations. There are international and regional circumstances and historic and geographic relations between the two countries that are pushing these relations forward. This is inevitable and not a matter of choice. Therefore, one feels reassured that one will accomplish something commensurate with the motion of history and geography. It is a matter of time; Saudi-Iraqi relations will eventually take a major leap forward.
Q) Any relations between two countries have many aspects. Let us begin with the economic relations in light of statements by Iraqi officials that referred to talks between Riyadh and Baghdad on the issue of activating this file.
A) As everyone knows, the world’s economic weight is beginning to tilt toward Asia and, more specifically, toward China, Japan, and India. Economic activities will be in this direction with an expected economic regression in Europe and a revival in Asia. Therefore, the region of the Gulf and Iraq – especially if we take into consideration Turkey’s membership in the European Union – will be the bridge linking these two regions(Asia and Europe) that are two of the most important economic regions in the world. During our talks with our Saudi brethren on this issue, we assert to them that as Iraq and Gulf countries, we do not wish to be a mere economic bridge. In other words, we wish to be part of these economic activities and we want these activities to grow and prosper. We are an influential part in planning for these activities that will be of benefit to us and to our future generations. We do not want anyone to tailor a suit for us and make us wear it. We want to be part of the tailoring and sewing process. Therefore, this region is slated to be even more important. So, as I just said, we need to think how to be part of this process of planning and execution so that our region would be at the center of future economic, social, and political activities. That is why the Saudi-Iraqi role is bound to increase in importance and to be much more important than because of the oil it contains. We should be aware of this issue; we should benefit from it and exploit it to bring more bounty to our peoples and region, and we are capable of doing so.
Q) But what is the next move to implement this economic vision on the ground?
A) The next move will be on several axes. The first axis will be an economic one. The economic relations between Riyadh and Baghdad are bound to grow in an explosive manner. It will not be a normal development but a very huge one. In the past three years, the volume of trade between Iraq and Saudi Arabia has been doubling annually. Last year, it was 1.4billion riyals; the year before that it was 800 million riyals and before that it was 400 million riyals. We expect the volume of trade exchange between the two countries this year to break the barrier of 2 billion riyals. This is happening while the borders are closed. Can you imagine how they will be when they are open to commerce and businessmen? That is why our first effort is to open the border crossing and we have submitted such a request to the Saudi Foreign Ministry. During my meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal he promised that something will be done in this regard. Saudi businessmen in Al-Sharqiyah [the Eastern Province], Riyadh, and the north are very eager for this. The Iraqi consumer costs the Saudi merchant a lot because the long distance raises costs. At present, and based on an analysis conducted by the Chamber of Trade and Industry in Al-Sharqiyah, the cost of transportation of foodstuffs is the primary factor in raising the cost of Saudi goods in Iraq. So, if you wish to give the Saudi merchant a competitive edge, you should remove or minimize this transportation cost. We hope that the crossing point would be safe and secure. The way that this crossing should be opened is for the Saudi trucks to proceed to the border area and there the exchange process should take place. This way the Saudi trucks do not cross into Iraq and the Iraqi vehicles do not cross into the kingdom. All the aspects of the trade exchange zone between the two countries are ready to begin operating. Therefore, the opening of the crossing point is a priority for us. Just as this matter has hurt the Arar region, it has also hurt the opposite area of the Al-Nukhayb and its surroundings because all the tribes live on trade. So we wish to revive these regions and establish economic exchange between the two countries. We believe that the “Judaydat Arar” crossing will not be enough for trade. We wish to open another opening in Al-Jumaymah and it will be closer to the southern region in the direction of Al-Samawah and Basra. This would be the second border crossing. Our priority now is to open the Judaydat Arar crossing point because it is ready for operation. After a political decision is made to open this crossing point, the second crossing point will be subject to an issue of economic feasibility rather than a political issue. During our talks with the Saudi officials, we pointed out this priority to them and that Arar should come first and then Al-Jumaymah. Another aspect of these economic plans, God willing, is to convene an Iraqi-Saudi economic forum where Iraqi businessmen would meet with their Saudi counterparts and discuss in detail the investment opportunities that exist in Iraq and the opportunities for cooperation between the two countries. After that, a joint Iraqi-Saudi council would be established to provide advice and make recommendations to officials in the two countries on ways to develop economic relations.
Q) Any progress in the economic field should be preceded by a political will. How can such a will be established in light of the absence of communications and visits by senior officials from the two countries?
A) We are seeking to establish cooperation between the two countries first through contacts between officials on the highest levels. We now feel that we have an opportunity in Iraq after the election of anew parliament speaker who has already visited neighboring countries and Egypt. We believe that it is appropriate and necessary for him to pay a visit to the kingdom at the head of a delegation representing the other parliamentary blocs so that the Saudi officials would be briefed on the efforts being exerted to bring about national reconciliation in Iraq. Our message to the brothers in the kingdom is that we do not claim that there are no pending issues but we are seeking to put these issues on the table for discussion. We want officials from the two countries to meet and review these matters in order to resolve the outstanding problems.
Q) Do I understand from your remarks that there are Saudi reservations on the efforts being exerted to bring about national reconciliation in Iraq?
A) Yes, the fraternal Saudi officials, headed by the custodian of the two holy shrines believe that the efforts for national reconciliation in Iraq are not up to the required level. They want these efforts to be faster and bigger. They want everyone to be included in the political process and that this process should move forward at a faster pace.
Q) What about the security file that continues to delay the restoration of relations to normal?
A) Two months ago, Prince Naif Bin Abdulaziz stated that the security of Iraq and the Gulf are tied together and cannot be separated from each other. We support this point of view and we issued an official statement endorsing Prince Naif’s speech. We believe that this is the correct opinion and approach. We have mutual security concerns and common denominators and we have a long common border. We live in an unstable world, especially in our region. Therefore, there should be cooperation in order to establish security. Security should either be to all or to no one. We are seeking to upgrade the security cooperation and we have exerted good efforts in this regard. Consultations are held between the Saudi officials and Iraqi national security officials headed by Muwaffaq al-Rubayi.
Q) But security contacts between the Saudi and Iraqi sides have come to a stop.
A) They have stopped because the status of the national security consultative council in Iraq is being reviewed. The national security adviser was appointed by (US Administrator Paul) Bremer for four years based on an emergency law. These four years have ended and now the parliament is in the process of putting forth a draft law for a strategy and status of the national Security Council. This draft law has not yet been ratified.
Q) Do you expect the security contacts between the two sides to resume after the parliament ratifies this strategy?
A) The issue is not related to whether the parliament ratifies this draft law or not. We hope that the security contacts between Iraq and Saudi Arabia would continue. Frankly, Iraq will be involved in an extremely important requirement in January; namely, the elections. For the politicians, perhaps the subject of the elections will be their primary preoccupation. The elections do not entail just electoral campaigns but much more. They may deal with drawing up a plan to determine the future of Iraq. This plan is being formulated now. Will we revert to the sectarian issues and trenches or will we emerge from such trenches to the arena of national action that comprises everyone? That is why I say that we are facing a very important crossroads regarding the future and status of Iraq. We hope that these elections would proceed in the right direction and with God’s help and that of our friends and brothers, we hope that Iraq would take the road of development and construction, not that of violence and divisions.
Q) Why did you mention “friends” before you mentioned “brothers” in your last reply?
A) I said that because first, the brothers are also friends and, second, unfortunately, the role of the brothers is a weak one in Iraq. At one time, the brothers decided to leave Iraq handle its problems alone. They assumed the role of spectator more than that of partner and brother. It is true that a brother is not always on your side but he remains your brother. It is a matter of blood. You cannot change your skin but you can change your friends. The weakness of the role of the brothers in Iraq hurts but it gives us the impetus to work with our kinfolks and brothers.
Q) But some Arab countries that are considered fraternal to Iraq accuse the Iraqis of prostrating themselves before a country that is not fraternal as far as they are concerned.
A) Sometimes you predict something but with your conduct you realize this prediction. Many Arab countries complain that Iran controls Iraq. If you leave a political vacuum in Iraq, do you blame others for filling this vacuum? The answer is no. This is a divine and natural law. If you believe that you have an interest and influence but you abandon it, can you blame others for coming and taking your place? The Arab countries have a natural right in Iraq that cannot be denied by anyone. This is the right of blood, history, and geography. Last week, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Rafi al-Isawi came to Arar to attend the funeral of one of the sheikhs of the Al Bu Isa tribe.
Q) Let us return to the issue of the opening of the border crossing point. Do you have a specific study on the volume of trade exchange between the two countries if the crossing is opened?
A) I am first interested in the symbolism of opening the border crossing. Second, I care about the Iraqi trader in Al-Nukhayb and the Saudi trader in Arar more than I care for the big merchants. I care more about this point rather than about the issue of trade exchange. We also want Iraq to benefit from the cement factory in Arar. In my opinion, the opening of the crossing point will be accomplished in two steps. The first step is the issuance of a political decision. As soon as such a decision is made, we will bring the two sides together to discuss the logistics and tie all the loose ends. We will then set a date for finalizing this issue so that the crossing point would be ready to operate.
Q) How do you explain Iraq’s return these days to the cycle of violence?
A) There are several issues involved. There are domestic considerations and regional considerations. These regional considerations impact on the situation inside Iraq. We have to monitor the regional conditions and the domestic conditions and see in which direction they are headed. The election is an extremely important issue. Furthermore, on the internal level, there is the issue of the withdrawal of the US forces from the cities to the bases and the readiness of the Iraqi forces to take over the security file. All these issues are being scrutinized in all the cities and they should be taken into account to understand what is happening in Iraq.
Q) You sound to be hinting – or perhaps that is my interpretation – that the violence taking place in Iraq is a natural Iranian reaction to the West’s support for the protest marches in Iran.
A) Consider the following as a general rule: Any instability in any country will have negative repercussions in the other countries. That is why we seek to consolidate stability throughout the whole region. Instability in Iran or in any other country may lead to instability in other countries, particularly neighboring ones. Stability is in the interest of everyone. Let us look for other ways to resolve disputes and conflicts.
Q) Finally, are there visits for Iraqi officials to Saudi Arabia that have been scheduled prior to the upcoming Iraqi elections other than the visit of the Iraqi deputy speaker?
A) This visit will mark the start. We hope it would be an opportunity to brief the Saudi officials on the current efforts pertaining to the establishment of national reconciliation. We have made all the arrangements for the visit and are only waiting for the official approval and setting the date.