Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—With the erratic but steady progress of Iran’s nuclear program and the announcement of nuclear power projects in some other Gulf states, the issue of nuclear safety and environmental protection in the region is more important than ever. As a result, the technical and scientific problems surrounding it are now rising up the agenda of regional states to join the existing economic and social problems that have bedeviled them in recent decades, chiefly the need to create enough jobs for the region’s thousands of young university graduates.
Asharq Al-Alwsat spoke to Dr Abdullah Aqlah Al-Hashem, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian and Environmental Affairs in the secretariat of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), about the organization’s efforts to tackle new environmental problems, as well as its efforts to deal with youth unemployment, the political fallout of the Arab Spring, and plans for further regional integration.
Q: The recent GCC summit produced several significant resolutions. How important are these resolutions, and how will they be achieved?
A: The 33rd GCC summit recently held in Bahrain was of a special character. It focused on very important topics. Take for example the initiatives that are being implemented presently, which include those surrounding the subject of the Gulf’s youth. There were diverging views about how to best invest in our youth, especially considering that they represent the majority of the Gulf’s population, but that divergence occurred because the youth are in need of many things. They need education and health care, and more importantly, they need a productive way to spend their spare time in a manner that benefits their countries, and prevents them from drifting into unhealthy activities. This means creating jobs that absorbs their energies and abilities. This cannot be accomplished by the public sector alone; it is imperative that the private sector play a role in absorbing the potential of the younger generations and help fix the issues of dropouts and the difficult job market.
Q: (Interjecting) Do you think that the private sector has fulfilled its role regarding accommodating the Gulf’s youth?
A: I believe that there are indications that the private sector has started down the path which we had hoped it would. On the other hand one must acknowledge that the private sector is first and foremost profit-based, but it should shoulder some social responsibility in this area. The public sector must work in conjunction with the private sector by setting standards that regulating the distribution of work opportunities and job opportunities in a manner that is smooth and does not drain both sectors. There are already regulations in place in the GCC countries which encourage the private sector to participate in absorbing the Gulf’s youth into the labor market. For instance, Sultan Qaboos recently decreed that foreigners may only comprise 33 percent of a company’s workforce.
Q: Are there any examples of joint ventures between GCC members to harness the energies of the young?
A: This question is very important. I recall a recent summit resolution regarding establishing youth-based initiatives that could absorb their energies which included an integrated program with working plans. The first matter is training young people to be competitive in the job market. The private sector has complained of the lack of strong credentials, qualitative training, and specialization among the Gulf’s youth. This does not help them progress in the workplace. There is a lack of regional institutions that offer training and specialized instruction. However the Gulf has tried to address this by signing agreements with European, American, and Asian institutes to train Gulf youth and enhance their credentials. Consequently work must be done to establish massive projects capable of absorbing as many graduates of these institutions as possible. Here I can say that if we were are able to succeed in providing good training for young people, then we will have prepared them for competing in the local and international job market. For example, the oil sector in GCC countries rarely hires graduates from the Gulf. One other industry I will mention that lacks Gulf youth is the automobile industry, and there are many other vital sectors which need trained and qualified young people.
Q: Do you have any new initiatives directed at the Gulf youth which you intend to submit at the next summit in Kuwait?
A: Yes, we have a bundle of large initiatives, six in total, which are all aimed at young people. These projects must offer young people avenues to express their abilities, demands, and skills. It is important that education be given priority throughout its various stages. For example Japan focuses on primary level education, which it considers the base upon which all future education rests. It provides its youth with programs that will benefit them as graduates, including social sciences, ethics, and inter-personal interactions. I think we in the Gulf desperately need this, especially considering that we have an abundance of money.
Q: Is there a project on the impact of the media on young people?
A: What you just mentioned is the fourth of the six projects. We want our media to be sophisticated and competitive, but socially responsible. The media should not be a source of chaos. It is noteworthy that there are more satellite channels in the Arab world than there are universities, there being 560 satellite channels and only a handful of universities. That represents a serious danger because subversive campaigns could distort the mentality of the Arab audience in the Gulf. Thus we must work to contain these hazards before they reach the minds of our youth.
Q: Youth-led factions have come to the fore in some Arab and Gulf countries, with loyalties being established at a young age to certain ideologies or groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Is this something that concerns the GCC?
A: It is an emerging phenomenon with a limited scope, but nonetheless it must be treated with the utmost seriousness. However it would be difficult for a movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood to spread across the various Gulf countries, and such is the case with liberals, socialists, and other currents. But the existence of these groups is an undeniable reality. This requires that we approach them in such a way that does not collide with them, but rather that listens to others, understands their point of view, and studies the changing scene carefully so that we can know if it is an organic change or imported from abroad and the result of external pressure. This way we will know how to address it. Generally speaking, our sons and daughters who embrace certain streams of thought should be engaged in discussions so that we may understand their political orientations, so long as it does not hurt the overarching interests of the country and society. We do not want to clash with them; that will only muddy the waters and provide cover for others to exploit our young people and harm our communities.
Q: In light of the changes surrounding the region, what do you think are the biggest threats to the security of the Gulf countries?
A: The Arabian Gulf is not very large in terms of breadth and depth. Every year between 30,000 and 40,000 ships from across the globe pass through this small waterway, carrying oil, trade goods, and other materials. There are more than 90 cities and villages on both sides of the Gulf. The biggest challenge is keeping track of the ships, which requires that we enhance cooperation efforts with our neighboring countries.
Of course war with Iran is not in our interest and we wish to avoid such an outcome. Therefore, it is imperative to establish a permanent peace. This does not mean that we are against the use of nuclear energy, but it must be used peacefully and for peaceful purposes, not for war. This requires full transparency on Iran’s part and it must allow the international and Gulf communities to oversee and verify the peaceful nature of its endeavors so as to reassure everyone. We know that the Iranian Bushehr reactor was built by the Germans in 1975 and was shutdown in 1979. We have detailed information about the nuclear reactors and their classifications in Iran and elsewhere. Thus when Iran is not transparent in its nuclear activities, it poses a risk to everyone, and only 200 to 250 km divides us from Tehran. We have no objection to cooperating with Iran and discussing the risks so as to reach an agreement and create a safer and more peaceful world for us all.
Q: Let me ask you a question about Iran’s nuclear activities. How do you view this threat to the Gulf, and how do you plan to deal with it?
A: (Interjecting) It is not just a question of war and a nuclear blast; the radiation would spread very quickly and very far [in the event of a serious accident]. Not to mention the chemical and environmental pollution and the contaminants that are easily detectable. However the real the danger is the radiation because it has no color, taste, or smell. Therefore the average citizen would not be aware that he or she is within the contaminated zone. Moreover, that the radiation remains for a long time, in the food, clothing, air, land, crops, livestock, everything. Thus radioactive contamination is unlike other types of pollution which are geographically and temporally limited, and it cannot be treated or contained in a safe manner. Unfortunately Iran’s reactors have aroused fear amongst its neighbors and amongst pearl and coral merchants who rely on a pristine natural environment. This also violates the water security of the people of the region, which is one of the world’s most vital commodities.
Q: The Gulf Center for Environmental Monitoring and Radiation Assessment, how is it coming along, where will it will be based, and how will it operate?
A: It will be based in the United Arab Emirates. It will begin operating soon, before the coming summit in Kuwait. It is a science center with laboratories, and there is a committee called the Meteorological Committee which works with satellite technology to monitor air, water, and food conditions in addition to importers and exporters operating in customs areas and the extent of radioactive contamination. This resolution was adopted in light of the radiation found in Ireland. Ireland’s geography is similar to ours, because there is a waterway separating them from a country with nuclear facilities, the United Kingdom. The Irish have experts and scholars studying the radiological situation and its implications 24-hours a day. They also assess the relationship between radiation and wildlife, water, and disease.
Q: Iran has decided to continue developing its nuclear reactors despite protests from the rest of the world. By what mechanism will the GCC countries deal with this problem, specifically, God forbid, in the event of a disaster?
A: This is a very important question. But let me assure you of our comprehensive preparedness. We would respond in accordance with the joint Gulf contingency plan, and we have established an organization called the Marine Protection Organization based in Kuwait, which includes the Gulf countries in addition to Iraq and Iran, which works at a global scale. We have also established the Marine Emergency Mutual Aid Center (MEMAC). The Abu Dhabi summit also adopted a contingency plan which has since been presented to an American company for implementation, but it demanded a 20 percent increase on what was originally agreed. After that it was proposed to several other international companies, and the tender was awarded to a Canadian company which operates in the GCC in risk management, training, and awareness building. It will work on addressing the risks facing our countries.
Q: A report was recently published which stated that in the event of a war or nuclear disaster in Iran, only ten percent of Iranian territory would be impacted, and the majority of the damage would fall on the Gulf. Is this accurate?
A: This report was most likely published by Iranian sources. With all due respect to our neighbor Iran, I believe that this report is not entirely credible. Their communications with the outside world and with us are subject to censorship, in matters political and scientific. We are tied to them with many common bonds, including religion, geography, history, and trade. All we ask is that they commit to operating transparently and credibly, not only in relation to us in the Gulf, but also with all others around the world who understand the risks and seek to address them. I will reiterate that the risks that would result from their reactors would exceed their containment capacity and the capacity of others. This reminds me of the Russian reactor and the fallout it caused, in addition to what happened in Japan despite the fact that its reactor was of the fourth generation which are lauded for their high levels of security and safety. The Bushehr reactor is based on the most active earthquake zone in the world, and has low levels of security and safety to begin with.
Q: There was also a report which stated that the Bushehr reactor had leaked radiation, making it the most dangerous Iranian nuclear reactor.
A: The first company that assisted Iran in building the Bushehr reactor was the German company Siemens, and thus it was not the Russians as some would think. However in 1979 after the Iranian revolution, the German company’s activities were halted, and in 1985 a Russian company came and signed a contract with Iran to build a nuclear reactor for $2.5 billion. The Iranian government then decided to complete the construction of the first nuclear reactor, contracting again with a Russian company for $800 million. This reactor is dangerous because it was the result of two different construction companies, and unfortunately the people of Iran know nothing about that. Moreover, Iran has not signed any international nuclear safety and security agreements since 1994, and, of course, to be bound by these agreements means to be committed to global security and not Iranian security, so there is a moral responsibility to be borne by Iran in this regard.
Q: In light of this serious situation, do the GCC countries possess radiation sensors? Is there a plan to protect the Gulf from radiation? And is cooperating with Iran the best defence against it?
A: Yes, in all GCC countries there are radiation sensors assessing the levels of radiation, and there is a system governing this process that uses satellite measurements to gather information. There is also a contingency plan set in place if, God forbid, an explosion in a particular place were to occur. Teams are trained how to address the impact of radiation, and have instructions regarding how to interact with citizens. As for the question of cooperating with Iran, we have proposals to which they could agree through negotiations with the International Maritime Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the global community. All we ask of Iran is to sit at the table of peace and security with us because there is no better way than through cooperation and negotiation.
Q: About 30,000 to 40,000 ships pass through the waterways of the Arabian Gulf each year. To what extent is the pollution of the region caused by this? Do you have something in place to prevent pollution from these sources?
A: The Gulf is contaminated chemically and biologically, and suffers from waste water pollutants, waste from ships, and unsustainable fishing practices. We are active members in the Organization for Marine Protection and are a party to the agreement called MARPOL, which compels us to hold those ships accountable so as to limit their waste. Some countries recently established facilities for the treatment of pollutants and waste. There is also a Gulf study in coordination with the World Bank underway which is surveying marine animal and plant life. Thus the Gulf is making efforts to reduce pollution and mitigate waste. This has become big business for solid, chemical, or biological waste mitigation firms.
Q: What about the water linkage project authorized during GCC Summit 32?
A: Connecting water lines or railways or any other sort of connection would mean the creation of whole new cities and many new jobs. Industries that work in joining together various networks are expanding across the world. Movement across the various GCC countries has become important, as well establishing connections across the various electrical grids. Creating these links has become a commercially viable market as evidenced by the European Union. Therefore this linking up in the Gulf will bring us economic, political, and social benefits. Moreover the conflicts and disputes between us will decline because of the work being done to advance our common interests. Our oil profits allow us to buy water resources from anywhere and in turn we can make this into a profitable market and source of jobs. This will enable us to be prepared for 2032 when we will embark on a new direction in terms of our oil resources, 90% of which we use on water and electricity according to studies.