Lundi 22 Avril 2019  

N°124 - Quatrième trimestre 2018

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     Arabie Saoudite
  S.E.Dr. / H.E.Dr Mohammed Bin Ismaël AL-ASHEKH

Saudi Arabia Pushes Ahead with Reforms
As the Gulf region struggles with the Iraq crisis, the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the spread of terrorism, Saudi Arabia is forging ahead into a brand-new phase in its history. H.E. Dr. Mohammed Bin Ismail Al-Ashekh, the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to France, shares his thoughts on the kingdom’s new political and economic openness, its efforts to overcome social challenges, and developments in the Middle East.
The Diplomatic Letter: Mr. Ambassador, Saudi Arabia has been striving to open up its political system, with H.R.H. Crown Prince Abdullah launching a “National Dialogue” and promising to hold partial municipal elections next fall. Could you describe the drive to broaden political participation in your country? The Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) is being gradually expanded and invested with new powers. Towards what type of political system is the kingdom heading?

H.E. Dr Mohammed Bin Ismail Al-Ashekh: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been continuously evolving ever since it was founded by King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, in function of the unique religious practices, customs, and traditions inherent to the Saudi people. Identifying a predetermined model as the best way to implement reforms and spur development in our country would be inappropriate. When it comes to enacting reforms, the unique features inherent to every state and region must be taken into consideration. Moreover, the Saudi people and their leadership are in full agreement on the issue of reforms: they must originate inside the kingdom, to ensure they meet the demands and aspirations of the Saudi people. The national dialogue is part of a mechanism set up to outline the content and form of these reforms, and determine the direction our country will take in future. Holding municipal elections is another step in this direction. Let me stress that we have also taken measures to boost the Consultative Council’s powers, enabling it to fully fulfill its mission. All reforms will be carried out with full respect for the unique character of our kingdom and the Saudi people.

T.D.L.: After the 1998 launching of a vast program of structural reforms, in 2003 Saudi Arabia posted its second budget surplus since the end of the oil boom twenty years ago. Could you describe measures being taken to diversify the economy? Do they focus on any sectors in particular? After opening up the oil industry to the private sector, what are Saudi authorities doing to improve the foreign investment climate and encourage further privatizations? Your country signed a key trade agreement with the European Union in the summer of 2003. Has it taken any further steps in view of joining the World Trade Organization?

H.E.D.M.B.I.A.: As they push ahead with economic reforms, Saudi authorities have taken a number of measures designed to help create new jobs for our young people. These measures focus on privatizing public companies, including health and social services, and selling shares in other publicly-held firms, such as the Saudi Electricity Company. Industries like communications, water desalination, air services, highway construction, and petroleum refining have also been opened up to the private sector.
As regards joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is in the final stages of the accession process. The Saudi WTO working party has already opened talks with the all countries that demanded bilateral agreements, and intends to conclude them without delay. Saudi Arabia took the final steps at the end of April, during the 11th meeting of the WTO working group in Geneva. The kingdom asked to sign an agreement in principle for WTO membership, as four other countries have requested bilateral agreements, which we expect to sign shortly. Once the bilateral agreement with China has been inked, Saudi Arabia will have signed bilateral accords with 31 countries. The kingdom has yet to sign agreements on domestic market access with the United States, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Panama. That said, even if additional countries demand bilateral agreements, the kingdom’s accession cannot be delayed any further. This is the most important stage in our country's WTO accession bid.

T.D.L.: Saudi Arabia is facing considerable social challenges, with the population growing at record pace and unemployment on the rise. Could you describe the government’s policy of pushing employment for its own citizens, as the number of foreign workers swells to six million? Has it launched initiatives aimed at creating new jobs, such as setting up special training programs? What are the goals behind the reform of the national education system? Several Saudi businesswomen attended the Jeddah economic forum last January, alongside their male counterparts. What can be done to improve women’s condition in Saudi society?

H.E.D.M.B.I.A.: Our country is, indeed, experiencing a sharp population increase. Most Saudis fall within the 15 to 45 age range, which accounts for 42% of the population. This figure will continue to steadily rise, since a 45% of the population is between 1 and 15 years old. A large share of Saudi Arabia’s young people hold university degrees. The government is working to boost the level of training in every age bracket, so investors have a broader field to choose from as they hire workers for their projects. In fact, Saudi Arabia has created a special foundation for human resources development. It promotes the training and employment of Saudis by pursuing the following goals:.
– subsidizing activities designed to augment the training and employment of Saudis in the private sector;
– helping to fund the training of Saudi manpower in the private sector;
– paying part of the salary of Saudis working in the private sector;
– promoting programs aimed at increasing the use of Saudi manpower, instead of foreign workers;
– granting loans to private institutions that train Saudi workers, so they can branch out into new fields and learn how to use modern technologies;
– carrying out studies and research projects, and providing technical and management advice on the training of Saudis.
To give you an example, the gas agreements the kingdom recently signed with a number of international companies will help spur the all-round development of Saudi industry, in the petrochemical industry in particular. This will create new opportunities for our young people, as well as opening up new horizons for Saudi investors. The terms of these agreements even stipulate that Saudi firms must be given priority in subcontract work emanating from these projects.
The tenders for water desalination and electricity projects will be put out following a clear timetable, as part of a tender offer on which both national and international firms will be invited to bid. Projects of this kind help to create new jobs for the growing number of young Saudis entering the labor market. They also help to “Saudize” the workforce, with these firms providing both technical and management training. Creating new jobs is clearly one of the key aims of these projects. In fact, the terms of these accords stipulate that 65% of the jobs must be given to qualified Saudis, with that figure rising to 75% in three years.
Our education system is built upon a strong foundation bolstered by the Islamic religion, the immutable laws of our faith, and our unique character as it has been shaped by the nation’s history. Textbooks are updated every year, to ensure our educational program is in tune with the times. Saudi authorities recently decided to conduct a comprehensive overhaul of our education system, to ensure it encompasses both local and international developments and has the means to successfully carry out our national education policy. This reform strives to meet four pressing needs:
– Implementing changes that fully reflect the rapid cultural, economic and technological shifts in Saudi society and in the people’s everyday life.
– Specialists have grouped the major changes that have taken place in the world over the past twenty years into ten categories, which include the communications revolution, the knowledge revolution, globalization, the social revolution, and the economic revolution. We must adapt to these upheavals, and do whatever is necessary to turn them to our advantage and ward off any potentially negative effects.
– Heightening our labor force’s skills by expanding training will boost our state’s human capital. An investment in education is an investment in the future, with positive results 100% guaranteed, since future generations will decide the fate and future of our nation.
– The project has taken a number of considerations into account, starting with labor market demands, the requirements of university studies, and the psychological and physical needs of students and intellectuals. It is also informed by the findings of international studies and research projects.
The preparation phase of this wide-reaching project lasted three full years, as we set up training programs, recruited qualified personnel, allocated the necessary material means, built specialized work sites, exchanged visits with Arab and international delegations, carried out field studies, assessed textbooks, and coordinated the work of public services and educational institutions. All of this was done to create a comprehensive vision that encompassed everything that could help craft a modern educational project that meets the needs of our modern times.
As for the measures that could be taken to strengthen the role of women in Saudi society, reports and statistics show that Saudi women own 3.4% of Saudi-owned companies inside the kingdom. Women are the registered owners of 1,500 firms and establishments that work in a wide variety of areas, including the building trade, industry, interior decoration, education, cosmetics, clothing, children’s toys, and antiques. These figures have changed the way the world looks at Arab women, and at Saudi women in particular, as many were convinced women played a very confined role in the working world.
The growing number of women with advanced degrees and the depressed job market prompted Saudi researchers to conduct studies focusing on employment opportunities for women in female-oriented industries, with the goal of giving them a larger role in the Saudi economic system. It should also be stressed that women now account for over 50% of the total population of Arab countries and 24% of the region’s active labor force. This has bolstered the Saudi Ministry of Planning’s projects for 2000-2004. It intends to take full advantage of the available female labor force, and to create new job opportunities for Saudi women with full respect for Islamic law. We plan to increase the number of women in the work force from 8.32% (1999 figures) to 10.43% by the end of 2004. This has prompted women to begin entering new areas of the job market in recent years, such as marketing, sales, computers, Internet, communications, and even industry.

T.D.L.: An active player in the fight against terrorism, Saudi Arabia has been the target of several terrorists attacks attributed to Al Qaeda in recent months. How do you account for the rise in religious extremism in your country? Could you outline the steps taken to root out terrorist networks operating on Saudi soil? What has been done to staunch the financing of networks with ties to Osama bin Laden? Have these efforts been a success? Could you describe Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the international community, and with other Arab Muslim nations?

H.E.D.M.B.I.A.: As you know, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has condemned and continues to condemn terrorism in all its forms. Our kingdom has suffered cruelly from terrorism, as have all countries targeted by these violent acts. The attacks that have been carried out in Arabia are abject and cowardly acts committed by a handful of misguided individuals trying to destabilize our country and sow terror and fear among our citizens. The acts of these tiny terrorist groups are a grave violation of the religious values and moral principles on which our religion is founded. Islam denounces terrorism and fundamentalism, and promotes tolerance and brotherhood between all peoples.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, like so many other countries, has taken a firm stance in the fight against terrorism. It has confirmed its determination within key international bodies, and has complied with the United Nations Charter and the principles of international law. It is also participating actively in international efforts to root out terrorism.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has endorsed all United Nations decisions and resolutions on terrorism. It has cooperated fully with all of the international community’s efforts to wipe out international terrorism. It was one of the very first Arab states to sign the agreement to strengthen cooperation against terrorism put forward by the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1983. The kingdom has also signed several international antiterrorism agreements, such as the Montreal and Hague Agreements. Saudi Arabia has also established a commission to study and put forward ideas for drafting international agreements to combat nuclear terrorism and the financing of terrorism. These initiatives are proof of the Saudi leadership’s firm commitment to the fight against terrorism, and to the wide range of its cooperation with the international community. Finally, the kingdom took its latest step in this battle on 4 May 2004, when joined other Gulf countries in signing the Kuwait counter-terrorism pact.
Saudi authorities have also launched a series of measures designed to further their war on terrorism. We have enacted laws punishing the perpetrators and instigators of acts of terrorism. The operations and funding raising activities of charitable organizations have reformed, to weed out loopholes and prevent funds from being diverted and used to finance terrorist attacks in the kingdom or abroad. We have also focused on prevention, educating children about the fight against terrorism in Saudi schools.

T.D.L.: The September 11th attacks marked a real turning point, deepening the gap between the Arab and Western worlds all the further. As an advocate of close dialogue between peoples and an enemy of extremism, what is Saudi Arabia doing to heighten mutual understanding between the two civilizations? What are your thoughts on the spread of Islamic terrorism, in view of the rise in terrorism around the globe and the recent attacks in Madrid? What is the best way, in your view, to tackle this problem? How do you feel about the misuse of the term “Wahabism” in the West, where it is equated with the doctrine promoted by fanatic Islamists?

H.E.D.M.B.I.A.: The September 11th attacks were unanimously condemned by the entire international community, but this did not stop certain forces from taking advantage of the climate of fear they generated to lay the blame at the foot of Islam and the Arab World. Various media sources spoke of “Islamic terrorism,” or the “Islamic threat,” or an “Islamic bomb,” as if terrorism were synonymous with Islam and was confined to the Muslim world. Unfortunately, this attitude only enhanced the West’s misunderstanding of the Arab World. The kingdom has worked tirelessly to preserve the dialogue between our two cultures, urging them to work together in the fight against terrorism. It has repeatedly called for closer dialogue, to prevent unfounded accusations against any one religion or any one people. I am sorry to say that the Sept. 11th attacks have indeed kindled a certain degree of “Islam-phobia.” The most urgent thing is to make people realize that these groundless accusations and any parallels made between Islam and terrorism are harmful to our peoples, providing new fodder to those who decry a “shock of civilizations” and thus giving the perpetrators of the Sept. 11th attacks exactly what they wanted.
The kingdom appealed to the people of the world to not let themselves be drawn in by this abusive reasoning. It also stressed that it was urgent for the United Nations to make the fight against terrorism an international battle, free of generalizations and discrimination. This is absolutely vital, to protect every member of the international community from the dangers of terrorism, including state terrorism.
The fight to wipe out terrorism will be more effective if it is bolstered by strong political dialogue between the members of the international community, based on United Nations antiterrorism resolutions. We cannot wipe out terrorism without first addressing its root causes, and the conditions that encourage its spread. It is our duty to analyze the political, economic and social conditions that create a climate favoring the emergence and spread of extremism and the use of violence. The international community must work hand-in-hand to this end, with all the determination and strength needed to defeat this common enemy. We can no longer simply condemn and disavow terrorists, and offer our condolences to their victims.
We cannot simply enact new antiterrorism laws. We must attack the infrastructure that allows these tiny terrorist groups to carry out attacks all around the globe. Certain countries are harboring individuals who have taken refuge there posing as “political opponents.” These countries grant them protection, and allow them to benefit from a number of rights. These so-called political refugees have the means to propagate hate and encourage the use of violence, and are allowed to move about these countries freely.

T.D.L.: After over half a century of very close ties, tensions have been running high between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Has the transfer of the U.S. regional air force headquarters to Qatar opened up a new chapter in Saudi-US relations? While the two allies continue cooperating very closely in the fight against terrorism, there has been a sharp rise in anti-American feelings in your country. Where are Saudi-US relations headed?

H.E.D.M.B.I.A.: Saudi-U.S. relations are built on a very solid base that has been built up over the past sixty years. They are steered by shared interests and mutual respect. This strategic alliance has had its ups and downs over the years, like any alliance. Despite it all, it has remained very strong. Our two countries cooperate very closely in a broad range of areas, which is why we are able to weather these crises. The quest for peace in the Middle East and the battle against terrorism are the main crux of our cooperation efforts. It is, nonetheless, only normal that our countries do not share identical views on every issue. When all is said and done, the most important thing in Saudi-U.S. ties is their vital strategic value. This is why we must promote and preserve these ties in years to come, to maintain peace in the region and ensure global stability.

T.D.L.: The Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) approved an interim constitution on 8 March 2004, but interethnic classes continue in this as yet unstable country. How do you feel about the way the new Iraqi state is being put together, and the growing discontent of the Shi’ite community? Would your country consider getting involved in the reconstruction of Iraq? Has it taken measures to secure its northern border? On a broader level, has the Iraq war had an impact on Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical strategy?

H.E.D.M.B.I.A.: The preservation of Iraq’s territorial integrity is the sino qua none condition for the stability of Iraq and the region as a whole. We have full confidence in the Iraqi people’s ability to work together in the best interest of their country, and to restore peace and domestic security. Only a legitimate Iraqi government, one recognized by the United Nations and other international bodies, has the authority to determine the nature and shape of Iraq’s political system. This is why we have expressed our desire to see the United Nations play a central role in Iraq. I think that Coalition countries are beginning to grasp the true importance of the United Nations, which has prompted them to widen their efforts to resolve the Iraq question.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, will not put forward any conditions for the reconstruction of Iraq. The Saudi and Iraqi people have long-standing ties, founded on a shared history, language and religion. Once order has been restored, the kingdom will gladly support any actions that can help to reestablish security and stability in our brother country.
In answer to your last few questions, the kingdom has adopted a series of measures since the war to liberate Kuwait, with the aim of protecting its northern borders and preventing illegal crossings and trafficking, or any other illegal activity that could undermine our country's security. The kingdom is fully aware that restoring stability in Iraq and preserving its territorial integrity will have a positive impact on the entire Gulf region. Inversely, anything that threatens Iraq’s stability or territorial integrity will have a negative impact not only on Gulf countries and the Middle East region, but on the world as a whole. We cannot forget the Gulf region’s key importance in producing and supplying oil to the rest of the world.

T.D.L.: The “Greater Middle East” project is the cornerstone of the new U.S. strategy toward the region. What is your own response to this project? Arab states maintain the region will never be stable until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been resolved. Could the pan-Arab initiative for peace, put forward by the Arab League in May 2002, still be implemented? In light of the recent political shift in Iran, is this country’s nuclear program still cause for worry?

H.E.D.M.B.I.A.: Last year’s launching of the so-called “Greater Middle East” project to reform the region received wide media coverage. The details of the project, however, remain extremely cloudy. Saudi Arabia believes, along with the European Union and France in particular, that any project to reform the Arab region must come from within the region itself, and must take the unique and specific aspects of each state into account. A single model cannot be imposed on the entire region, simply because someone believes it is the best option. What works in one region won’t necessarily work in another region shaped by a different religion, history and civilization.
With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saudi Arabia put forward a peace initiative that was adopted at the 2002 Beirut Arab Summit. The kingdom then floated the “Arab Peace Plan,” which called for the enforcement of United Nations resolutions regarding the conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. In return, all Arab states would make peace with Israel. This initiative is still a valid option for achieving a fair and lasting peace and settling the Palestinian question. The plan was lauded by the European Union, the United States, Russia, and the United Nations. But Israel refused to even consider it, doing its utmost to ensure it failed. Despite Israel’s rejection, this plan is still the best way to bring peace to the region. In fact, the Arab Peace Plan is one of the main pillars of the “Road Map” to peace in the Middle East put forward by the quartet of the U.S., the E.U., the U.N., and Russia.
Finally, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have taken a very positive turn, to the benefit of the peoples of both countries. Our position on Iran’s nuclear program is founded on one basic principle: the kingdom calls for a ban on weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons in particular – throughout the Middle East. All of the countries in the region should sign a treaty confirming this ban, and agree to open their nuclear facilities for inspections and checks by the relevant international organizations.

T.D.L.: A plan to reform the Arab League was scheduled to be put forward on 29-30 March 2004 at the Tunis Summit. What does Saudi Arabia think should be done to strengthen the role of this key regional body? What is behind the recent dissension within the League, starting with your country’s differences with Libya? Could the creation of a customs union linking the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council lead to broader cooperation between Arab Peninsula countries, and help resolve border disputes? Could you summarize the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border dispute, which has recently rekindled tensions between your countries?

H.E.D.M.B.I.A.: The Arab League is one of the world’s oldest regional organizations, yet it plays a very limited role in the lives of the region’s peoples. Plans to reform the Arab League are aimed at reinvigorating the organization and giving it a larger role in forging the destiny of Arab peoples, by equipping it with the means to achieve the objectives on which it was founded. Saudi Arabia has put forward initiatives to that end, as have other Arab countries. We will study and debate the different proposals, with the aim of crafting a joint plan that meets their desire to give the Arab League larger role. This plan will then be ratified by all the member states.
The creation of a customs union linking the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council is the result of a long series of studies and negotiations. The goal is to enhance cooperation and trade between states in the region, as well as with other countries and regions of the world, such as the European Union. I do not, however, believe that the Gulf Customs Union has any correlation with the resolution of conflicts over the delineation of borders between Arab states. And as for Yemen, it was not a border conflict but simply a difference of opinion over a border, which was settled through friendly dialogue between the Saudi and Yemeni heads of state.

T.D.L.: With one-fourth of the world’s oil reserves, Saudi Arabia plays a key role in market fluctuations. What is the reasoning behind the OPEC countries’ decision to cut production and keep oil prices high? How do you feel about Russia’s rise in power? H.R.H Crown Prince Abdullah’s visit to Moscow in September 2003 confirmed the historic rapprochement between your country and Russia. What does this mean for the future? Will the emergence of new production zones in the Gulf of Guinea and the Caspian region, combined with the return of Iraqi oil, have a long-term impact on the international oil market?

H.E.D.M.B.I.A.: As you are aware, OPEC countries situate the optimal price for oil between$20 and $28 per barrel. OPEC decided to cut production starting in April to counter the drop in world demand during the second trimester of 2004, which happens every year. Given current price levels, higher production would have had disastrous effects and would most surely have led to an oil surplus on the international market. On today’s market, the price of oil fluctuates in relation to speculation, economic growth mechanisms, and a variety of other factors, but not because of decreased oil supply. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has pledged to guarantee market supplies by stepping in to offset any unexpected shortage.
The Saudi-Russian rapprochement was kindled by Crown Prince Abdullah’s visit to Moscow in September 2003. It has led to the signing of a 5-year cooperation agreement in the petroleum and gas sectors. We have inked additional bilateral agreements, along with a joint declaration that shored up the rapprochement and confirmed the two countries’ shared stances on vital issues of regional and international scope. The growing cooperation between our two countries – both of which are major producers and exporters of oil – has allowed us to maintain oil prices at a reasonable level. Russia and Saudi Arabia are coordinating their strategies in this arena, which has been a key factor in stabilizing prices.
The international oil market has seen the return of Iraqi oil and the emergence of new oil-producing states in the Gulf of Guinea and the Caspian Sea. Iraq has the world’s second largest oil reserves and is one of its leading oil producers. It is also one of OPEC’s founding countries. For all of these reasons, Iraq’s return to the international oil market is a positive step forward. Moreover, the emergence of new oil-producing countries has increased consumer confidence about oil production. New producers do not threaten OPEC’s market share, since forecasts predict a net increase in world demand over the next two decades. We must, consequently, coordinate our efforts more closely with the oil industry’s budding powers, to prevent sharp price fluctuations. The abundance of oil resources can guarantee sound growth in the world economy. On the other hand, if producing countries fail to cooperate, economic growth could be undermined

T.D.L.: Saudi Arabia and France have long-standing and close ties, bolstered by the strategic partnership launched in 1996 and frequent consultations between our countries' leaders. How would you describe current bilateral relations, which stretch from the highest levels of government into the political, military, and trade arenas? Will the new agreement on the promotion and protection of mutual investments boost bilateral trade? As someone who attended university in our country, what did you take away from your French experience? What can be done to enhance mutual understanding between the French and Saudi peoples?

H.E.D.M.B.I.A.: Franco-Saudi relations draw their strength from our determination to further the shared interests of the French and Saudi peoples. Our ties are founded on mutual respect and open cooperation at every level, and are held up as a model of good state-to-state relations. The encompass a broad range of fields, including the political, economic, cultural and athletic arenas.
Saudi Arabia and France have signed an agreement on mutual promotion and protection of investments. It just one in a series of agreements concluded over the years between our two countries, with the aim of bolstering cooperation and cementing our shared interests. This treaty, along with our other accords, will have a positive impact on bilateral relations. Moreover, Saudi Arabia greatly appreciates France’s distinguished and honorable position on international issues affecting the kingdom and the Arab region as a whole. This too has helped to strengthen ties between our countries.
My experiences as well my studies in France were obviously extremely enriching for me, on a personal level. France’s cultural and scientific heritages have won it world renown. I chose France with the desire to learn more about French culture and to use that knowledge to my country’s benefit. It would be very difficult to sum up all lessons I learned from this experience. Perhaps the biggest lesson was realizing that the French are able to integrate people of all different origins, taking no heed of their ethnic or religious backgrounds.
I believe, finally, that the most effective way to enhance mutual understanding between our two peoples is create more opportunities for our citizens to meet together directly. Saudis welcome several million foreigners to their land every year, either to make the hajj pilgrimage, to work, or simply to visit our country. These visitors come from different cultures and practice different religions. The Saudi people, like the French people, understand and appreciate the great diversity of the world’s cultures, and are able to live side by side with them. We must now work together to create increased opportunities for people-to-people dialogue, and thus build even greater mutual understanding.
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