Publications

Saudi-European Relations: Towards a reliable partnership

20 February 2004


HRH Prince Saud Al Faisal, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, addressed an EPC Breakfast Briefing on “Saudi-European relations: Towards a Reliable Partnership.” The briefing was chaired by Stanley Crossick, EPC Director and Founding Chairman. A question and answer session followed. This is not an official record of the proceedings and specific remarks are not necessarily attributable.

Prince Faisal made an impassioned plea to the West not to brand Islam as the root of terrorism. He warned against "negative stereo-typing" and the imposition of western values on the Arab world. Islam was not the enemy: the enemy was terrorism. “In the struggle against this evil we must be partners who share the same objectives, recognising and allowing for diversity” he said.

Islamic nations and the West: Increasing and enriching dialogue

The Prince began by calling for frequent communication and "more candid dialogue" in EU-Arab relations to improve understanding. The political and cultural religious misunderstandings of the  past should not be allowed to affect the future.There had to be mutual cooperation to fight the terrorist scourge: “You cannot just dismiss a 1400-year old culture and civilisation and stigmatise it as merely as a hatchery for terrorism.”

There was a fixed idea in the West which characterised Islam as a religion followed by “backward characters who should be dragged kicking and screaming into western civilisation.”On the contrary, the Prince said, Islam itself could be the most effective weapon against extremism and chaos: "Don't let small numbers of terrorists tarnish this religion and remove that weapon."
 
Changes were needed in the Arab world, and they were already under way in Saudi Arabia. Reforms had to begin at home to ensure the welfare of the people, good governance and equality in the eyes of the law. But the prevailing western view that Islam was an obstacle to such modernisation was wrong: Islam was a religion, a culture and a way of life: "We do need change, but change cannot be imposed on the Arab world from without. This is particularly the case when a largely Western historical experience is projected onto a different setting such as the Islamic world of Saudi Arabia.”

The Prince insisted that “secularisation” was not the answer: “Proposals for secularisation would not put an end to religion but create a vacuum to be filled by extremists. Revolutionary fundamentalists in our part of the world and their extreme manifestation are more the product of Western trends and cultural influence than Islamic education and values.” The aim on both sides had to be to join forces to counter negative stereo-typing: "We cannot avoid each other on this small planet - and nor should we." History, geography and basic common sense provided ample rationale for building a strong partnership with Europe.

Reflections on reform efforts in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia had embarked on the road to reform and a brighter future with a comprehensive, integrated programme being carried through with "deliberate speed," covering political, legal, administrative, economic and educational change.The government had set up a Consultative Council and a Legion of Councils and established a timetable for municipal elections. It was restructuring public administration, reforming the judiciary and setting up an Independent Public Prosecution Authority.There were more than 25 new laws on foreign investment covering financial markets, taxes, controls on money laundering and measures to eliminate corruption. There were economic reforms, including accelerated privatisation of public services. Additionally, Saudi Arabia was now seeking to join the WTO, with many rounds of successful bilateral negotiations so far, including agreements with the EU. Another Saudi goal was the creation of an Arab free trade zone by 2005.

It was axiomatic, said the Prince, that such reforms were not an end in themselves but a means to an end. Reforms had to meet the needs of the community and had to be carried through with public consent, using due process and without unnecessary social hardship and upheaval.

Running through Saudi reformist thinking was a special emphasis on the role of women in employment and education. This was a key part being played by a new Centre for National Dialogue, set up under the guiding principles of "diversity and tolerance" to engage with different regions and with representatives of different religious factions of Islam.

Change was already evident, especially regarding women's role in Saudi society. For example, education for women was only intorduced in the 1960s, but today 49% of the 4.3 million student population in Saudi Arabia was female. In high school female students outnumbered males, and more than one third of all government civilian jobs were occupied  by women – not so far off the situation in some European countries. There was progress, too, in Saudi health care: life expectancy at birth as risen from 54 years in 1975 to 71 years in 2000 – one of the biggest life expectancy gains of any country in the world in recent years.

There was also an independent Commission for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, and everyone, government included, was answerable to it. In commmunciations, Saudi Arabia had 11 million telephone lines and the largest digital access in the Arab world – and the government was removing all restrictions on access to information.

While these changes may seem slow, said the Prince, if reforms were to endure they had to respond to the will of the people and maintain the unity of the nation. All of these developments had showed how wrong the "so-called experts" had been in predicting Saudi Arabia's downfall. In the 1950s and 60s they said revolution would bring about the Saudi collapse. In the 70s and 80s they said huge oil revenues would destabilise Saudi society and the social and political structure. In the 90s the warning was that external threats and declining oil revenues would bring down the country. Now the ‘doom-mongers’ were saying that Saudi was threatened by zealots unable to recognise problems, let alone solve them.

The Prince remarked: “Our demise continues to be thoroughly predictable.We did face formidable challenges in the past, and serious issues currently confront us – but the experts have misjudged and underestimated Saudi Arabia. The facts speak for themselves. We are still here and I predict, God willing, here we will remain.”

Against secularisation, for cooperation

But the “secularisation” solution, he warned, if imposed, would have the most unpredictable consequence throughout the Islamic world. For the vast majority of Muslims religion was not just theology but a  necessary check on the misuse of power by governments and a moral bedrock imparting a sense of community. Religion was the most essential element in a cohesive and Muslim society and applying readily-available solutions from the outside just would  not work. What was needed was mutual understanding and cooperation to ensure that the next generation was not filled with hatred and bigotry.

Arab youth had many attributes in common with its European counterparts:  similar hopes for a better life, similar wishes and dreams, and similar fears and anxieties.Arab youth listened to the same music, read the same books and surfed the  same websites on the Internet. Making use of the modern technologies and commonalities, it should be possible to defeat extremism, racism and terrorism.

There were other battles too, said the Prince – the battle for peace in the Middle East, where the EU and the Arab world both had a great deal to give to the peace effort. Here too, the need was to work together for better cooperation and mutual understanding. International cooperation was also needed in Iraq, to meet the practical needs of the Iraqi people, who had been through decades of suffering and wanted stability, freedom and prosperity.

Summing up, the Prince said the aim on all sides had to be to fight negative stereo-typing in the struggle against the evils of terrorism and ethnic division. “We must be partners who share the same objectives, recognising and allowing for diversity.”He went on: “Great things can be achieved if we mobilise our collective resources for the benefit of our peoples. We must not let political, cultural and religious misunderstandings of the past affect the future. We must not fight the wrong battles. Our quarrel is not with each other. Let us join forces in the fight and eliminate the scourge of terrorism.”

Discussion

Answering questions, the Prince defended Saudi Arabia's human rights record, pointing out that the government was cooperating with official organisations through the United Nations. He said Amnesty International reports about the situation had been studied by the UN and Saudia Arabia cleared of allegations of human rights abuses. The Prince said: “Human rights are not the property of some people and not of others. This is an internatioonal issue. I hope that Amnesty International will in future be satisfied in a way it has not been satisfied so far.”

On religious freedom he said Saudi Arabia was not free iself to decide on these issues but had to respond to the Islamic world in general. The consensus was that the international Islamic community had to be the arbiter. In general Saudi Arabia's aim was to bring about postive change through education, eliminating “negative elements” in teaching in schools. But these were internal matters and where there were idealogical differences with the West the way to urge change was by good example, not by imposition. The Prince suggested: “If we are backward and you are more advanced, you have the larger duty. We would like to learn from you, but don't impose things on us. If you wave the stick it will not work. You can't use force to change society.”

Questioned on the pace of change he said he chose his words carefully when he talked of Saudi Arabia moving with “deliberate speed.” Change could not come overnight, and in any case it should not be attempted ahead of the will of the people: “Do not introduce things before people are ready for them - but do not go too slowly either.”

On the debate within the Centre for National Dialogue, the Prince said it had clearly established that “secularaisation” was not the route to follow in Saudi Arabia. A wide dialogue was under way, including women and all sects, and at the beginning there was no meeting of minds. However, as the various factions gradually engaged with each other, they were finding that, whatever their specific views, they were “all human beings.”

Compromise was the art of democracy, and “you do not need force to convince the Arab world of the need for democratisation” said the Prince.

Chairman Stanley Crossick, thanked the Foreign Minister for coming specially to Brussels for the EPC breakfast, and concluded by quoting from Jean Monnet’s memoirs the words of King Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia: “Everything is means, including obstacles.”  The prince had explained the obstacles to achieving the kingdom’s objectives.  He hoped that these obstacles could be used as  the means of achieving these objectives.