Middle East Feature InterviewWith PM Fuad SinioraThe Forum of Energy Elders
Middle East Feature InterviewWith PM Fuad SinioraThe Forum of Energy Elders
“Harvesting Solutions for Tomorrow from the Wisdom of Yesterday”
The Abdallah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah International Foundation for Energy & Sustainable Development
Tuesday- May 9, 2017
Before I welcome our feature interview guest, I want your opinions about the subject that we are going to be discussing and the energy outlook twenty- twenty and beyond. As we all know it involves the geopolitics and the neighborhood and we have no better person to provide us with some wisdom than our feature interview His Excellency Fuad Siniora. But before we invite him, I'd like to get your opinions to questions raised by his Excellency when he addressed Gulf Intelligence on January 11, this year. That was when president Trump was about to take office. That address was recently published in a newspaper here in Qatar. Prime Minister Fuad Siniora has recommended the Trump's administration to adopt the following five main issues as its priority policies in the Arab region.
Which of the five recommendation which his excellency Fuad Siniora has put forward, do you think is the most pressing at this time that the Trump administration, in the context of the Middle East, should put to the top of their agenda. His Excellency has sent a message to the new presidency, from the Middle East perspective that you think is the most pressing. I know you might like to press all the above.
I will read them:
- Founding permanent rather than transitory solutions for the festering problems of the region, namely the Arab-Israeli conflict in Palestine; Syria and Iraq; and Libya and Yemen.
- Recognizing that extremism on one side can't be permanently defeated by extremism on the other side. Therefore, the war on ISIS cannot be won by the militias that are ravaging cities, and entire regions in Iraq and in Syria, and introducing religious, sectorial, and ethnic cleansing in large swaths of these two countries.
- Strengthening and empowering Arab moderates across the region as this region should not be ruled by extremism, and it should not move backward when the entire world is moving forward.
- Recognizing that it would be in the America's national interest as well as the interest of the region for the US to invest in the social economic development in the Arab region.
- Perusing an even-handed policy regarding the Arab- Israeli conflict, abandoning the idea of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and exerting US influence over Israel to abandon its expansionist settlement practices, thus allowing for the two-state solution to proceed.
These five themes that his Excellency put them forward I am asking you to make your choice. Which one of the above is more pressing, what the priority should be. Take ten seconds to answer the very complicated question.
The results are.
So, we have different ideas across the room
A and E 24%
It does give me a great pleasure and honor to welcome the former Prime Minister of Lebanon and the current head of the largest parliamentary block in the Lebanese Parliament. Truly one of the Arab world greatest democrats and has been in the forefront of the Middle East politics for the last two decades who was appointed the minister of Finance in the Government of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
It gives me a great pleasure to invite to the stage Former Prime Minister of Lebanon His Excellency Fuad Siniora.
Host: I will start by giving you the opportunity to comment on the question, and on the themes of the five points, and the result and to tell your thoughts on thatand maybe we can take it forward from there. We are surprised for example that empowering of the Arab moderates is at the least of these five selections.
H.E. Fuad Siniora: No. I am not surprised. Actually, all the above points are still very valid since they are very important issues. Accordingly, I believe that the present administration has to look at how to address these very vital issues of the region. That is why I believe it is very important to talk about the experience that we had so far with the new president during his first one hundred days.
Let me start by quoting an interesting anecdote. When Yitzhak Rabin met with President Gerald Ford on his first visit to Washington as Israel’s Prime Minister in 1974, he sought to cash in on Ford’s earlier promise to him that he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem if he ever became president. Ford remembered the vow he made as a member of Congress. Nevertheless, he said, “life looks different from the Oval Office.
That is exactly what we mean when we say that driving from the back seat is entirely different from driving from the front seat.
Actually, when President Trump was campaigning he was campaigning based on his experience as a businessman.
This is a lesson that President Donald Trump is slowly grasping. The businessman who campaigned as an isolationist “America First” candidate is inching toward a realist foreign policy on issues ranging from North Korean nukes to engaging China, Europe, NATO, and the Arab World.
He was talking about building a wall between Mexico and the United States and that America must come first, as well as all the other ideas he was putting forward. Clearly, during his presidential campaign Trump was behaving in a different way than he is behaving now.
The only main thing we know for sure that Trump the “President’ is very different than Trump the “candidate”.
Besides, the lack of clarity at both the global level (concerning China and Korea) and the regional level (especially concerning Syria) and the shifts in situations and policy responses is, therefore, expected to continue for a while. That makes the situation rather difficult to predict with an acceptable degree of clarity how the new president is going to behave on many of the upcoming issues.
Nevertheless, we can start to grasp the elements of what seems to be a Trump foreign policy concerning our region, as well as his assessment of the regional situation, particularly since he has started to change since he was campaigning, and afterwards when he started to assume his responsibilities at the White House.
It appears to me that his performance indicates real shifts in his views and his policy responsibilities. Moreover, I believe that this situation will continue as such. He has been definitely inching towards a realist foreign policy on all the various issues, particularly regarding the relationship with the NATO and with China, thus becoming more of a realist and trying to engage regarding the issues of the Arab World.
At this time, I would like to recall something regarding his position in Syria. For example, when the Syrian government dropped sarin gas bombs on Khan Shaykhun a few weeks ago Trump was really compelled to respond. Although he had urged his predecessor President Obama not to take any action against Syria when Syria dropped chemical bombs on a large-scale in 2013 on different spots in Syria against civilians, which lead to the death of quite a large number of people.
Regarding his relationship with Iran, I think his position has changed a little bit. He was definitely against the nuclear treaty with Iran, but he is certainly taking a tougher stand now. I think he believes that Iran is not a potential partner to the US, unlike the position that was taken by President Obama. And that is why he considers Iran to be a potential threat to security and peace in the region now. That’s why I believe he is going to take more tough positions against Iran and he will be using US sanctions against Iran and against all its activities and, let us say, as well as against its partners in the region.
How would this view be implemented in policy actions is yet to be seen, but surely it appears that we will see more US sanctions on Iran and on its various activities and partners in the region.
Regarding the Palestinian issue and based on his deal-making skills in which he takes great pride, Trump has expressed strong interest in being the US President that brokers a final deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He has already met both the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian President, assigned his son in law as the envoy to the region, yet he also sent very mixed and confusing signals such as his readiness to broker a one-state solution if that’s what the two parties to the conflict agree to.
I believe that in his behavior, and contrary to what was his position before as a campaigner, and so far, Trump in his behavior, he has so far exceeded the Palestinians’ low expectations of him. He has not yet taken steps to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, he has advised restraint on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and he has made Palestinian- Israeli peacemaking a priority for the peace in the region. These are, let's say, all the symptoms of recognizing the need to adapt to the change and to his feeling his way in the region as well as elsewhere in the world. These are things he had addressed while he was campaigning, or even before, yet he is realizing that life is different from the Oval Office than the way it had appeared to him when he was campaigning or even before.
Whatever approach President Trump takes in our region, we hope (and we, as moderate Arabs, should work to ensure) that the master key to solving all problems in our region remains a just, final, and sustainable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that ensures the birth of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Only then can the region be put on the right track.
So, this is the situation as I see it in the first one-hundred days, and what matters to us is to see how we should deal with this situation in the Arab world.
I strongly believe that some real efforts need to be made in engaging the President of the United States and trying to show him exactly many of the points that I have put forward a few months ago. Namely that something has to be done in order to realize that it is not possible at all to defeat extremism and terrorism easily or to defeat an extremist group by creating another extremist group. Thinking that they will finish each other. This thinking will further extremism and will lead towards more loss of lives and more destruction.
Host: In your acknowledgment that he has taken more realist posture, is that a good thing, positive development that gave him credit from your point of view for the first hundred days because your expectations was that maybe there would be something more concerning.
H.E. Fuad Siniora: Definitely it is a positive thing. It is not at all possible for a president of the United States and with all his responsibilities, and being president of a super power like the US to continue dealing with matters from the point of view of a businessman or the point of view of somebody who is not concerned or not really aware of what's happening in the world. To the contrary, he should really take into consideration the various factors that are to be considered in drawing the foreign policy of the US in the Middle East. For sure, there is a lot to be learned and I still believe that the president is still feeling his own way to understand what were the faults that were made by his predecessor without realizing that ultimately there has been a major change in the region that happened. Moreover, he should realize that the matter should be looked at from trying, first of all, to look for the real permanent solutions rather than to the quick fixes. Otherwise, if the administration continues to look at matters from the point of view of putting off fires here and there, it is going to end up increasing problems in the region. They will ultimately realize that in the US but that will be too late since the overall situation is rapidly starting to deteriorate further.
By the way, we should realize while we are talking about the US foreign policy in the region that the region suffers from so many ills emanating from the lack of serious programs for real reform. Such should have been done a long time ago but it has not been done as many of the social indicators are pointing to an alarming situation. Look with me at this important fact that tells how this region has now the largest percentage of youth to the total population in the world. And the youth are looking for real solutions to the festering problems of the region. They demand real solutions to address their great expectation in looking for jobs and looking for real reform and for a better education and a better life. So, if these matters are not going to be looked at, we are going to face more problematic situations. We will be seeing more disappointment and more anger, more feeling of marginalization among the young people and ultimately instead of trying to express their views in a constructive manner they are going to express it more negatively and ultimately in more violent ways.
Host: You said that we should engage President Trump. If you compare let's say the former administration of President Obama generally the criticism that he was non-engaged, if you like. Would you like to encourage in a message to President Trump to be more engaged. To have much greater engagement for America to be more engaged in a much more significant way than the previous administration and what are the consequences if they don’t what do you think that would be.
H.E. Fuad Siniora: Definitely I would recommend to the new administration to be more engaging and for President Trump to do so because it is the responsibility of US being a super power, but I would like really to add one more dimension and this has to do with the great underlying and increasing risks. Let me add here that the world is becoming a small village and the world has become more interdependent, and hence risks and problems are transmitted easily and quickly. Hence it would be the right policy to be wise and far sighted in order to be able to properly assess the underlying domestic and regional risks. Moreover, to identify the extent of the sizeable change that is happening in the region and the need to adapt to it and as well to try to lead the change towards its positive and constructive ends.
Let me quote in here something as nature has taught us a real lesson, but many of us are not really realizing what it really means. Recently, we started to hear and speak about the bird flu virus. Birds fly and cross the borders of so many countries without requesting a visa from anybody. Similarly, violence and terrorism do the same thing. Actually, it does not request a visa from anybody, particularly when you find that the people normally have high expectations and are becoming more and more demanding. You can't really pacify people and particularly young men and woman by simply using nice words. You should really look for real solutions to their problems.
It is in the interest of a country like the United States to really find out what is its interest in the long term, in the region and elsewhere. I believe that its long-term interest is in really finding real solutions to the problems in these hot spots rather than keeping them to fester and deteriorate further. The problem is as well that the problems will spread and infect adjacent areas and beyond. As such, the situation will become more and more problematic. It will ultimately infect so many other areas.
As I said, the world is becoming very small. Europe now is very close to the Middle East and it is suffering from the continuing influx of refugees crossing the Mediterranean going into Europe and elsewhere. So the solution is not to close the borders. It is impossible to close the borders anywhere anymore, especially with the impact of the great revolution in the field of telecommunication and in the process of communication among the various parts of the world. That is why one has to find real permanent solutions rather than short term fixes for the problems.
Host: Do you need in order to engage in the region in finding real permanent solutions some kind of common narratives, we have seen in the past narrative that you can stretch across many countries, so with the same position in old theaters, it seems that each country has its own theater and collection of narratives in every country. The American administration maybe allied and supportive of a certain group in one country and then the next country their interest as you highlight might be for the move and be supporting the other side. Many groups may have contradictory narratives in different countries and theaters. How would it be in America and how to tackle matters in complicated geography and under different circumstances and different times?
H.E. Fuad Siniora: Sure there is not one single solution to the various problems. Effectively, there is nothing like a pill that we could take to solve the problem in each and every country, You definitely have to tailor the solutions and the way things should be handled.
Host: You mention the moderates could it be one continuous narrative across many countries.
H.E. Fuad Siniora: We are witnessing in so many parts of the world a tendency towards populism and towards and extremism, or let's say, towards the right, as we have seen in the United States and in some other countries. But as well we have a counter reaction like what happened in Austria and recently we have seen what happened few days ago the result of the elections in France where President Macron managed to defeat Marine Le Pen. Because the majority of the people in France are afraid of the extreme right, they decided to vote for E. Macron. What I really want to say on this is that there is a general framework that one has to respect. Moreover, certain principles need to be respected while seeking to solve these problems.
I mean coming back to the region there is a very important problem in the region, which I consider to be the mother of most issues in the region. I am speaking about the Arab- Israeli conflict. Now this problem somehow has been dwarfed by what it is happing in Syria in terms of number of casualties, extent of destruction and because of the magnitude of the atrocities and the size of the accumulating problems in Syria.
Let me say something in here. Syria is a country which is about twenty-five million people. Over the past six years, over five-hundred thousand people are dead, there is a minimum of 1.5 million who were injured or incapacitated, and about fifty percent of the population of Syria are refugees within Syria and outside Syria. Let me add one more piece of statistics that is striking. The total size of the population in the Arab world is about 5% of the total population in the world, so we constitute about 5% of the world population, but we constitute more than 55% of the total number of refugees of the world. i.e. the Arab world is responsible for more than 55% of the total number of refugees in the world. This shows the extent of the problems that we are really facing in the region, and this tells how much is the urgency of the need to address these issues because it is impossible to continue to have such drastic problems without being able to provide real solutions for them. That what is really causing lots of anxiety, anger and tendency towards violence among the youth particularly because of the continued deterioration of the situation from all its angles and, ultimately, in not being able to find real and lasting solutions for the Arab- Israeli conflict.
Host: Do you think this remains the gateway.
H.E. Fuad Siniora: This is definitely the gateway for finding solutions to the many problems in the region. However, the very hot spot nowadays is in Syria, and the Syrian situation is definitely affecting negatively the nearby countries.
Moreover, there is another problem that is becoming extremely dangerous if it is not properly handled, which is the situation between the Arab world and Iran.
This situation is affecting the Arab world more and more because of the polices and measures that are being adopted by the Iranian regime and that is in adopting an Iranian interventionist policy in the region and causing instability in it. As you know, this is based on a theological theory of "Welayat Al Fakih" which is empowering the "Al Fakih" to interfere in the affairs of every other country all over the world without really respecting the principle of the sovereignty of the states.
Host: The issues that you mentioned in the Arab- Iranian conflict and the Arab- Israeli conflict, you identified Israel as the mother of the issues. Which one you really think is the mother of the problem the Iranian issue that appeared a decade ago or the Israeli one. And if Trump has to choose only one, in your alignment which one you really choose.
H.E. Fuad Siniora: You see, in real life situations you can't really pick one issue and think that you can keep other issues constant. In real life situations, you definitely have to address all of these issues together based on a real assessment of what has to be done in each in all of their links. It is not possible to continue having a situation like the one we are witnessing in the Arab-Israeli conflict to remain unconcerned while Israel is increasing the number of settlements, adopting an apartheid policy and pulling the Palestinians out of their homeland. Clearly without really addressing the situation from all its angles. At the same time there is another hot spot in Syria which definitely needs to be handled. If it is not going to be properly handled, it will definitely create serious consequences and it will affect so much in many other spots.
I think that the US should really have more a proactive policy in this respect in trying to find real solutions that can ultimately put an end to this alarming situation in the region.
Host: If you take a recommendation to avoid the risk of the context we have seen in the many US administrations in the past, which is unsolvable. I mean that there are really solutions but they are complicated, let's say. Then consume all the diplomatic oxygen that perhaps most of the region need now as Syrian plan of recovery, Libya and Yamen. There are many theaters that need the engagement of the world super power as you said. As Israel- Palestinian has become the principled gateway would that be the risk of sucking all the oxygen of the administration to tackle the other very significant problems.
H.E. Fuad Siniora: I know that the interest of the US administration is not restricted to our region. It has so many other issues that it has to attend to or deal with. We know as well that it has limited resources in time, efforts and attention. Let me put it this way. The number of issues of the region is very much and very interdependent and when put together they become immense and difficult to deal with. Hence, you can't really address the situation in Syria without really looking at what is happening in Iran and its interventionist policy in the region.
What I really want to say clearly in this respect is that I don't expect that the US boots are needed on the ground anywhere and everywhere. I think what is needed from the US is to empower the states in the region, particularly the moderate states. Specifically, the US in its relationship with Egypt and in its relationship with the Gulf States and so on should be to develop some real efforts with some of the Islamic countries, so that some efforts can be made in terms of creating safe zones in Syria and as well creating a peace keeping army composed of divisions from several Muslim states. At the same time to create a certain force that can really ultimately be dependable to intervene and solve the situation in Syria. In other words, to force some real solutions in there and engaging Iran at the end of the day to become part of the solution in the region instead of staying as part of the problem. And here let me put it very clearly.
My point of view about the situation in the region vis-a-vis Iran comes after long periods of wars and intervention that started to require finding acceptable and honorable solution to the deteriorating and alarming situation. This requires recognizing the extent of the dangers if things are going to be left as such to fester further. Let me quote here what I have mentioned in my paper that I delivered in January at Gulf Intelligence.
- “The politics of fatigue, and the need to stop wasting limited and shrinking and depleting economic resources, and missing nonrecurring opportunities both in Iran and the Arab World.
- The benefits that would accrue to all Islamic countries by avoiding further seditions within Islam, and
- Reducing tensions and extremism within the two Islamic sects and consequently avoiding the upcoming grave risks of maintaining the confrontation of the status quo”.
This would require Iran to recognize the need to stop meddling in the domestic affairs of neighboring Arab countries through exporting a “revolution” that is empowered by a theological theory of “wilayat al fakih” across national and political borders. By the same token, the Arab countries must recognize that Iran is a neighbor that should be respected and dealt with on equal footing with other neighbors.
This means that Iran is a fact of life and it is there and we have to deal with it and engage it. And I would like to say in this respect that there are plenty of common interests between the Arab world and Iran and, for sure, the politics of fatigue is going to play its role in the region because the various countries in the region and particularly Iran cannot continue allocating substantial resources away from the real needs of the Iranian people. It is important to listen to what the Iranians want and what the Iranians are interested in.
During the election campaign that took place recently in Iran one could listen to the discussion and the narrative of the people. What is now happening within Iran in preparation for the presidential election that's is going to happen very soon and in few days is very interesting. You will find out that the interest of the Iranians is not in the politics in the region as much as it is very domestic. There is plenty of high anxiety and anger and a real need from the government of Iran to address and deliver on what the people need and particularly in fighting corruption. This is something that is going to be more and more the real and the vital issues of the Iranians.
I believe that as much as we, in the Arab world, have to make our position clear and firm in terms of standing up to the challenge of Iran if it continues with its interventionist policy without realizing the risks that are accumulating in the region. And while we have to put it clearly and stand up to this threat, we really have to extend a hand towards Iran as there are plenty of common interests between the Arab World and Iran that is for the good of everybody, as matters can't continue as such of wasting these depleting resources in the region that can benefit all if they are going to be used in a productive manner.
Host: In conclusion, your Excellency, we can go to where we start President Trump first overseas trip is to the region I just like your views as his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia and to the region. What you are hoping that the trip will deliver and what signals you would like to see that will give some optimistic hope with the narratives that you mention.
H.E. Fuad Siniora: It is a very important trip particularly since it is his first trip overseas as the new President of the US. I think he is sending a real message in this trip before even meeting the group of G7 and the European leaders. He is coming to Saudi Arabia and meeting the leaders of the Gulf region, showing that he is going to show the world that he realizes that something has to be done-- and soon-- because if this situation continues as such with no change it is definitely going to blow up.
Host: would like everyone to join me thanking H.E. Fuad Siniora from Lebanon.