Nothing justifies 30,000 deaths in Gaza, GCC Secretary General says

Jasem Al Budaiwi also says Gulf nations believe in dialogue with Iran and the Houthi rebels in spite of major obstacles

Jasem Al Budaiwi, Secretary General of the Gulf Co-operation Council. Getty Images
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As the war in Gaza continues to bring destruction and suffering to the Palestinian people and deepens instability across the region, there is increasing unease around the Arab world.

How the war ends and its long-term impact are yet to be determined, but what is clear is the region has changed dramatically.

In an interview with The National, Jasem Al Budaiwi, Secretary General of the Gulf Co-operation Council, said: “Gaza’s war did not just change the region, it changed many of the international standards. It changed the whole world in a major way.

“What happens in Gaza doesn’t just stay in Gaza, there is a fallout all over the world,” he warned.

Mr Al Budaiwi stressed the necessity of a ceasefire in Gaza ahead of Ramadan, and for Israel to halt its attacks on the enclave, while he also expressed “surprise” at some of the political positions and stances in international forums.

Gaza’s war did not just change the region, it changed many of the international standards. It changed the whole world
Jasem Al Budaiwi, Secretary General, Gulf Co-operation Council

“There is no justification in any way whatsoever that allows 30,000 people to be killed in this manner and the international community is incapable in even condemning this or calling for a ceasefire,” he said.

The six countries of the GCC – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – have produced a high level of co-ordination on Gaza, while also each having their own position. Within days of Israel’s strikes on Gaza after Hamas’s attack on October 7, the GGC foreign ministers met in an extraordinary session.

Mr Al Budaiwi said the meeting concluded swiftly, within 45 minutes, as every member was on the same page.

“Everybody was saying to the other person exactly what they wanted to. One common stand, coming up with $100 million [in humanitarian aid] in 45 minutes is an amazing achievement in politics.

“This is political integration at its best.”

On how the war ends, Mr Al Budaiwi said: “The ceasefire must come first at the least, even if temporary, so we can work on de-escalation, allow aid to come in, treat the wounded who are in need in urgent care.”

As for the long term, “we hope for a genuine international effort to get to a transitional solution, a first phase of a ceasefire, allowing aid in, treating the Palestinians, who are hurt not only physically but mentally”.

“We need to reinstate Palestinian faith in the world, then we can talk about a two-state solution and a coming Palestinian government and elections.” He stressed “it will be a long process. We first must calm the situation. That should be the message from the international community, from Israel’s friends to Israel”.

While not naming the US directly, which has vetoed resolutions aimed at enforcing a ceasefire, Mr Al Budaiwi, who previously served as Kuwait’s ambassador to Washington, was clearly exasperated by the American position on Palestine.

However, he was also clear on the strength of GCC ties with the US. “There is no doubt that the six countries of the GCC have exemplary and special relations with the United States, based on mutual interests and historic ties,” he noted.

As a sign of the strength of those ties, the US was the only country with which the GCC held two ministerial-level meetings with in 2023.

“We speak in all openness with the Americans. I think we agree with them on many issues, but our primary problem with them is how they deal with Israel,” said Mr Budaiwi.

“We hope they exert more efforts with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s government, to convince him to at least get to a ceasefire.

“The US has a certain leverage that it can use to pressure and convince the Israelis.”

'Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue' with Iran

Iran is another country whose ties with the GCC are under examination after the war in Gaza. Iran’s proxies in Yemen and Lebanon – the Houthis and Hezbollah – add to the destabilisation of the region, but Gulf countries are keen to maintain good ties with Iran.

Asked how the GCC can deal with Iran, Mr Al Budaiwi responded robustly: “Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. We have no choice to deal with Iran but through dialogue.”

Mr Al Budaiwi’s remarks came one year after a detente between Riyadh and Tehran was signed in Beijing.

“We truly believe that the normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a very important element to add peace and stability in the region,” he said.

Mr Al Budaiwi reflected a general Gulf sentiment that is often repeated by officials from the region.

We hope our brothers in Iran look at us how we look at them, wanting to reaching peace and stability
Jasem Al Budaiwi

“We know Iran is our neighbour, we know for us to live in peace and stability and for them to live in peace and stability we need to work on making sure we have this continued dialogue but if I sit with you in a dialogue, we have to make sure we don’t interfere in each other’s business.”

Building trust with Iran continues to be a challenge, he acknowledged: “We want to see each other trusting one another. Instead of just looking at the challenges, we look at the opportunities for them and for Iran. There are lots of possibilities.

“You have to walk the talk, when you say something you have to match it with action. We hope our brothers in Iran look at us how we look at them, wanting to reaching peace and stability.”

Houthis and the Red Sea crisis

Iran is the main supporter of the Houthi rebels, who control much of northern and central Yemen, including the capital Sanaa.

Mr Al Budaiwi said Yemen was “a very important file for the GCC” and it seeks a peace deal for the country, which borders Saudi Arabia and Oman.

The GCC hosted Yemen talks in Ramadan two years ago that came up with the Presidential Council of Yemen to enable a strengthened Yemeni government able to negotiate a political solution with all Yemeni groups.

Since then, Saudi Arabia has engaged in talks with the Houthis, and the GCC Secretary General expressed support for the efforts of the UN envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg.

“We know the envoy, with the help of Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman, has reached some sort of an agreement that the envoy needs to work with all parts of Yemen on, but unfortunately what happens in Gaza doesn’t just stay in Gaza,” he said.

He described the Red Sea attacks as “a major issue for everyone and something we worry about”, and that a ceasefire in Gaza was needed to end it. “The Yemenis don’t need more agony, they have enough agony, enough war,” he added.

Mr Al Budaiwi stressed that political talks with the Yemenis, including the Houthis, continues regardless of the attacks “and we will do our best to make sure a peaceful process succeeds”.

He expressed concern about wider instability in the region affecting the Gulf in the long term.

“Thankfully, what we have achieved as six countries in the past seven to nine decades, is great.

“Our indicators are skyrocketing, but to protect our prosperity and development we are fully aware of the need to extend a helping hand to our brothers around us, from Yemen to Iraq to Palestine, to Lebanon to Syria, to Sudan and Libya.”

Political solutions are needed in all these countries, he said, “or to de-escalate, at the very least. We hope our friends and neighbours in the region, including Iran, can be included in this progress and prosperity”.

China, the US and free trade

That goal of a shared prosperity extends to China. While the US expects its allies, including in the GCC, to remain closer to it than to Beijing, Mr Al Budaiwi said: “We stand the same distance from our allies.

“We value the relationship with the United States, and at the same time, China is a very important partner for us. We see them in a positive light and all of the countries have an excellent relationship with them, from every angle.”

One of the primary drivers behind growing ties between the GCC and China is economic, with aspirations to conclude the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that has been under negotiation since 2004.

“The FTA is 19 chapters, we finished 16, we have three remaining. Two are very close, and one we are still talking about,” he said.

Gulf countries have been working towards diversifying their economies away from oil dependency, and one of the key pillars of this transformation is concluding FTAs with major economies.

“These FTAs will play a great role in opening up our markets and other markets for our products so we can move away a little bit from the oil, which we owe a lot of our prosperity to, but it’s time to take that measure to move away from it,” he said.

The bloc signed an FTA with South Korea in December after signing a similar agreement with Pakistan in September. It is also in talks with the EU and the UK.

Mr Al Budaiwi said that the FTA with the UK was in its final stages and that the hopes to finalise it soon, adding that signing it would “send a message of unity among us, among the GCC”.

In addition to pursuing FTAs, the six nations are focused on strengthening their bilateral economic relationships, with the goal of achieving economic integration in the future.

Gulf's 'Schengen' visa plan

“On every single aspect, we have reached the integration we want, even politically,” said Mr Al Budaiwi, but “economically we still have some challenges that we need to tackle and iron out”.

He announced that the bloc was in the process of coming up with its own “Khaleeji Schengen” visa and that the governments are discussing “how it looks, how much we charge, what software we use”.

“We are just in the process of moving forward with this.”

The economic diversification efforts of the GCC are continuing alongside initiatives to foster social change, one key aspect of which is the empowerment of women in the workforce.

The interview with Mr Al Budaiwi took place at the headquarters of the Secretariat of the Gulf Co-operation Council in Riyadh, ahead of a celebration of International Woman’s Day, the first such public celebration of Gulf women, with the participation of senior officials and a number of notable women from the six member countries.

It is a reflection of the continued advancement of the role of women in the Gulf in public life, and a part of greater societal changes. “I don’t see the societal change challenging our identity. On the contrary, it is strengthening our identity,” said Mr Al Budaiwi.

“Each country has its own unique way to reach that level of change, positive change, while at the same time maintaining our identity, values, religion, and beliefs,” he said.

“We want to move forward with the international community doing all these great achievements while at the same time maintaining our Emirati, Bahraini, Saudi, Qatari, Omani and Kuwaiti values.”

He stated that the GCC would work with the international community “on every aspect possible to protect human rights, protect labour, save the values, fight for humanity”.

“But at the same time, we want to make sure our values, beliefs, and understandings stay intact and are not to be challenged.”

Updated: March 11, 2024, 8:44 AM