Kattan: 'Council of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden' Is Strategic Necessity

Saudi Minister of State for African Countries Ahmed Kattan (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Saudi Minister of State for African Countries Ahmed Kattan (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Kattan: 'Council of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden' Is Strategic Necessity

Saudi Minister of State for African Countries Ahmed Kattan (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Saudi Minister of State for African Countries Ahmed Kattan (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The Saudi Minister of State for African Countries, Ahmed Kattan, has emphasized the strategic importance of the Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Kattan said: “Saudi Arabia was the first to realize the importance of the Red Sea and the first to initiate a call for international collective efforts aimed at coordination to protect and secure the safety of the waterway.”

The Kingdom hosted on Monday a meeting for the signing of the Charter of the Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Jordan, Yemen, and Eritrea are members of the new alliance.

Kattan explained that the safety and security of the Red Sea, which covers an area of 178,000 square miles, was of high strategic and geopolitical importance for the Kingdom due to its geographical location linking the three major continents.

“It has become necessary to provide an economic strategy for investment and development cooperation between the countries of the alliance and other countries which share common economic interests,” he said, adding: “It is as well important to take advantage of the available opportunities to create partnerships and establish joint projects and investments that stimulate economic progress and development.”

The Saudi minister recounted that the idea of forming a regional cooperation framework in this particular region dated back to 1956, when Saudi Arabia hosted a tripartite summit in Jeddah, with the participation of King Saud bin Abdulaziz, President Jamal Abdel Nasser, and Imam Ahmed bin Yahya.

The meeting saw the adoption of the Jeddah Charter, in which Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen agreed to establish a joint security system, the implementation of which was later obstructed by the political conditions that rocked the region at the time.

Years later, in 1972, the Kingdom organized a meeting in Jeddah, with the participation of Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Yemen. The joint statement affirmed the rights of these countries to the deep mineral resources of the Red Sea.

In 1974, Saudi Arabia signed an agreement with Sudan on the joint exploitation of natural resources at the bottom of the Red Sea, which resulted in the establishment of the Saudi-Sudanese Joint Commission in 1975.

The following year, in 1976, a tripartite summit was held in Jeddah in the presence of King Khalid bin Abdulaziz, President Anwar Sadat, and President Jaafar al-Numairi. They agreed on the need for military coordination in the Red Sea or the formation of a unified military committee, along with the announcement of a joint defense agreement between Egypt and Sudan.

In the wake of security incidents in the region in the beginning of the 1980s and the high pollution rate that threatened marine navigation and the environment, Saudi Arabia intensified its efforts and succeeded in 1982 in the adoption of the Jeddah Agreement for Arab Security and the Environment, which was also signed by Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, and Yemen.

In 2018, the Kingdom hosted the Ministerial Meeting of the Red Sea Countries and has since maintained its work to enhance regional security coordination and cooperation, Kattan told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The Red Sea - which has a coastline of about 5,500 km, an average amplitude of about 300 km and a depth of 2,500 meters, and encompasses around 1,150 islands – enjoys a unique strategic, commercial, economic, and security importance since ancient times, the Saudi minister noted.

He added that the new alliance was the result of the urgent need of the region's countries for more cooperation and political coordination.

On a different note, Kattan underlined Saudi Arabia’s “efforts to resolve differences between brothers in Africa.” He said that the Kingdom has harnessed its pioneering Islamic role in this regard, pointing out that the first result of those efforts was the historic peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The late Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, excelled at delivering messages subtly. In private meetings, he spoke more freely than in public statements or interviews. His chief advisor, Fakhri Karim, often joined these discussions.

Luncheons were lavish, showing Talabani's respect for different opinions, though he rarely followed doctors’ advice.

Talabani believed that Iranian leaders were smart and hoped they wouldn’t try to control Baghdad from Tehran, citing the failed attempt to manage Beirut from Damascus.

He noted that Iraq’s independent spirit makes it hard for the country to follow the US, Iran, or Türkiye. Talabani also admitted giving refuge to 80 Iraqi officers who had fought against Iran, after they were targeted by certain groups.

Talabani praised Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad for his invaluable support, providing accommodation and passports.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Karim revealed he had warned President Bashar al-Assad, on behalf of Talabani, that militants allowed into Iraq to fight US forces might later turn against Syria.

This, Karim noted, did happen.

After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, Karim relocated to Damascus. There, he expanded his Al-Mada organization, focusing on publishing, translation, and organizing book fairs, alongside his political activities.

This allowed him to build relationships with top civilian and military officials.

In 2000, after Bashar al-Assad came to power, he met with Karim.

“I felt Assad was eager to listen, especially given my connections with many intellectuals,” recalled Karim.

“I told him dissenting voices exist but are mostly positive. You talk about modernization and renewal; this is a chance for some openness, even in elections,” Karim said he told Assad.

“Do you think anyone could really compete with you, given your position as the Baath Party's leader with all its resources?” Karim questioned.

Karim then discussed the situation of Syrian Kurds with Assad, noting that many lack identification papers, even basic travel documents. He also mentioned seeing historic Kurdish areas in the Khabur region with their names changed to Arabic, which causes sensitivities.

“I am not satisfied with this situation. Rest assured, this issue is on my agenda, and you will hear positive news about it,” Karim cited Assad as saying at the time.

In a later meeting, after the change in Iraq, Karim met Assad several times.

On one occasion, Karim recalls conveying Talabani’s greetings and concerns about armed fighters moving into Iraq and the dangers this posed to both Iraq and possibly Syria.

“We have deployed large forces to secure the borders, but what can we do? There are tribes and smugglers,” Assad complained about the situation.

“I told President Assad that as Fakhri Karim, I couldn’t share with the Americans what I know. I assured him that terrorists enter Iraq from a specific location I’m familiar with, not from all borders,” Karim recounted to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“I also noted that Syria tightly controls its airspace, shooting down any foreign aircraft,” he added.

Assad then responded to Karim and said: “We’re prepared, let us know what we can do.”

In reality, Damascus was worried because there were reports suggesting that Syria’s Baath regime could be the next target for the US army at its borders. Additionally, Damascus was concerned about the sectarian divisions—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish—in dealing with Iraq and the potential impact on Syria.

Repairing Kurdish Relations

Karim has spent years working on repairing the relationship between Kurdish leaders Talabani and Masoud Barzani.

This history began with the split that gave rise to the ‘Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’ from the ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party.’

Despite bloody conflicts and external meddling, Karim believes Kurdish leaders unify in the face of danger to their people and region, a pattern he expects to continue.

Karim believes that the Kurdish leadership, symbolized by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, made a big mistake at the beginning by focusing only on regional issues, ignoring Baghdad’s affairs.

He thinks they should have aimed for a federal democratic system that respects citizenship rights.

Karim pointed out that without a unified Iraq, the region’s rights would be uncertain. He also criticized the Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which he sees as odd.

Additionally, he mentioned mistakes in failing to unify regional institutions and increasing corruption, with party interests often trumping competence in appointments.

Asked about the personal bond between Talabani and Barzani, Karim said: “Both have moved past their tough history, but they haven’t done enough for the future.”

“I want to highlight an act by Barzani that shows his character. When Talabani was sick, Barzani made it clear to anyone thinking of harming Talabani or his family that there would be consequences,” he revealed.

“This isn’t hearsay, it’s firsthand,” affirmed Karim.

“Barzani also refused to discuss the presidency or a successor during Talabani’s illness. I personally organized a gathering for Talabani’s family, where Barzani reassured them, ‘I’m here for you, I’m family.’ His words moved everyone, showing a strong emotional connection,” he added.

When asked about Barzani’s character, Karim said: “He's been a long-time friend, and our relationship has been politically aligned and personally warm from the start.”

“I see him as a loyal friend, and he's shown that loyalty on multiple occasions. He’s smart, decisive, and listens carefully, often changing his mind after thorough consideration,” he noted.

“Once Barzani commits to something, he finds it hard to go back on his word. There was a moment during negotiations with Saddam Hussein when he stood firm despite my advice to reconsider,” recalled Karim.

Regarding the aftermath of the independence referendum, Karim believes that the negative turn in the political landscape began during Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure.

Al-Maliki’s attempts to shift alliances and his refusal to compromise exacerbated tensions.

The referendum itself wasn’t the problem; rather, it was exploited by some to punish the Kurdistan Region.

However, Karim emphasized that holding referendums is a citizen’s right, and the purpose of the Kurdistan referendum was to affirm this right, not to declare independence.