Security the 'prime concern' in Middle East, says Prince Turki Al Faisal

Over next decade greater inter-Arab co-operation could emerge to provide stability, Saudi royal says ahead of Beirut Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi

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Greater inter-Arab co-operation on security could foster prospects for stability, paving the way for greater peace and prosperity in the Middle East as it enters the next decade, Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki Al Faisal told The National on Saturday.

With Iran’s behaviour clear for everyone to see after the Saudi Aramco attacks and the targeting of shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and Arabian Gulf, maintaining security must remain the top priority, he said.

“Without security there will be no hope. So, security is a prime concern and should remain a prime concern. How can you think of the future if your life is threatened, if you can’t send your children to school, if you can’t go broadly in your work and be sure that work is sustainable. So all of these things have to be secured in a stable society to make you capable of looking to the future,” he said.

The conclusion of 2019 feels like a watershed year in terms of a shift of roles and influence in the region at large, with regards to the United States, Russia, Turkey and other powers.

“The world today is in flux and so there is no clarity that is discernible to guide us as to what to expect in the next decade,” Prince Turki said.

The former head of Saudi intelligence and at one time the kingdom's Ambassador to Washington and London, is currently the chairman of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies, and was speaking on the eve of the Beirut Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi. In its third edition in the capital, the event's theme is 'Thinking 2020s: What to Expect? How to Prepare?'.

The summit will tackle the region’s security and political challenges in policy circles as well as in “public discourse” and provide suggestions of how to meet these challenges, the prince said.

He is hopeful that the next decade could be marked by greater and more successful inter-Arab co-operation to meet these challenges.

“The Arab world, since the Second World War, has been trying to achieve that integration and co-operation that everybody dreamed of, as a means of maintaining peace and prosperity for the people of the Arab countries. Unfortunately, so far, we have not succeeded in doing that. The next decade will perhaps be an opportunity, with the modern technology, particularly on the level of social media. As you know, now the younger people are very much engaged in social media and connecting with each other. And you see that reflection everywhere, whether it is in what has happened in Algeria or in Sudan or in other countries. And it has an affect on all of us. So, achieving a prosperous and viable future is what everybody wants.”

Despite how entrenched the Israeli position has become, perhaps encouraged by the administration of US President Donald Trump, the prospects for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, as well as broader relations with Arab states, are not quite as bleak as they appear, he said.

"I don't think we should ever be hopeless in meeting challenges, even the mother of all challenges, which is the Palestinian issue and the Israeli occupation of Arab lands," said Prince Turki.

It will continue to be an impasse until Israel “recognises that it is part of the community of nations here rather than the exception”.

It must “give up its, really, barbaric practices in the lands that it occupies by removing people from their homes, incarcerating them without trial, assassinating them and using the most vicious methods to maintain, what they consider to be, a stable and secure area. But it will never be stable and secure unless the people of Palestine get their full rights."

He said those are the right to a sovereign state, the right to their capital in Jerusalem, and the right to their identity.

In the past decade, Prince Turki has also made efforts to help bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Following recent talks between the US and the Taliban and presidential elections in Afghanistan last month, the world will be very supportive of any solution found between the Afghans themselves if the separate sides are able to get over their differences, he said.

The Afghan people have paid a huge price since the Soviet invasion back in 1979.

“That time it was because of that invasion, the mass bombings and killings of Afghan people, the driving away of the Afghans from their homes to become refugees in Pakistan, Iran and in other places of the world. When the Soviets withdrew, everybody hoped that there would be a solution and a peaceful resolution of the problem. Unfortunately, the Mujahedeen leaders at the time went into conflict themselves and the civil war ensued which led to the coming of the Taliban, which initially was promising in establishing peace and so on, but as later developed, their espousal of Al Qaeda at the time led to the terrible events that happened, not just in New York, but wherever Al Qaeda operated.

"As you know, the kingdom was a victim of Al Qaeda for many years. The American intervention that came after the destruction of the twin towers in New York, again there was an opportunity there to go after the perpetrators, [Osama] Bin Laden and his group.”

However, prospects dimmed after the Americans diverted their attention to Iraq in 2003.

“Other developments happened after that which prevented the conclusion of the peaceful resolution to the Afghan situation. The Afghan people are the ones who are paying the price, whether they are being killed by Taliban insurgents or by American bombing and other such incidents that take place every once in a while.”

Closer to home, Saudi Arabia launched its first tourist visa programme in recent weeks, as it ramps up the development of its tourism industry as part of economic diversification efforts.

The country’s people are “excited indeed” about the prospect of a greater number of visitors coming throughout the year, the prince said.

However, “the Kingdom despite what has been reported about it particularly in Western media has never been a closed society”.

“The holy cities of Makkah and Medinah have hosted Muslims from all over the world for the past 1,400 years. If you like, the first tourist agents in the world were the ‘mutawafeen’ who received these pilgrims and provided them with services and accommodation when they came to the holy sites. So, having foreigners come to the kingdom is not unusual. What is unusual is the ease with which now people can come through the visa procedures that has been established by the kingdom.”