Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

Saudi Arabia Has Proven Its Role as Engaged International Player: Cleverly

Saudi Arabia Has Proven Its Role as Engaged International Player: Cleverly

Sunday, 7 June, 2020 - 05:15
James Cleverly, Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa
London- Najlaa Habriri

Global cases of the novel coronavirus neared 7 million on Saturday, according to a Reuters tally, and the death toll has approached 400,000.

While the spread of the coronavirus unfolds differently around the world, international efforts are redoubling to face its impact and to alleviate its economic and social repercussions. In this regard, The G20 nations, currently led by Saudi Arabia, have pledged more than $21 billion to fight COVID-19, in terms of diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics, and research and development.

The group affirmed they will spare no effort to protect lives and the most vulnerable.

For his part, James Cleverley, the British Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa, valued Saudi Arabia's efforts in confronting the pandemic regionally and internationally. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Cleverly lauded the coordinating role played by Saudi for the international community as the head of the G20 this year.

Below is the interview:

· You have previously mentioned that the modeling expects the Middle East to reach the peak of the pandemic in the summer months. What are you doing bilaterally with your partners in the region to mitigate the consequences of the spread?

The reason that we are really grateful about the strength of the bilateral relationships, particularly with Saudi Arabia, but also the relationships with other countries around the gulf is because every day that we deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, we learn a bit more about the nature of the infection and the virus, and how to mitigate the impact and deal with it. And it is sharing that knowledge, which means that if the modeling is accurate and the Middle East reaches its peak through the summer months, then it's not going to be dealing with that alone. And so I've had a lot of conversations with my contacts in the Gulf about what we've learned from it, and about their support for us and what we might do to support them in turn.

What we want to make sure of is, if the modeling is accurate and the peak is over the summer, that we work together to reduce the peak. The timing might be out of our control, but the way that we collectively respond to it is very much within our control.

The bilateral relationship is definitely going to help. The Gulf deal with coronavirus, but it's already helping us deal with it. And I think that's a really good example of why the relationship matters.

· Could you tell us a bit more about what you are doing with Saudi Arabia specifically to fight this pandemic, both on a regional and global level?

The strength of the Anglo- Saudi relationship has really shown himself most recently. One of the first things that we’ve had to deal with in the UK was the repatriation of British Nationals overseas, and working with the Saudis has helped get over a thousand British nationals back home. And so, that was a very early indication of how useful that relationship is.

Saudi’s leadership position within the G20 has meant that they've done a lot of coordinating role with the international communities, so that we can focus on the needs of some of the poorest countries, not just in the region, but globally, with coronavirus.

And we're working together on a whole range of health initiatives. Saudi has contributed $150 million to the Global Vaccine Summit this week, which is incredibly good. But also prior to that, they contributed $150 million to “CEPI”, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and $200 million for the World Health organizations.

And so, the financial contribution is incredibly important, and we can't underplay that. But also being thoughtful and engaged, recognizing the very visible leadership role that Saudi has in the Islamic World, and its support through King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief).

I think Saudi has shown itself to be a real globally engaged player, and it is giving financial and non-financial support. And I've found both with the Saudi Ambassador to London (Prince Khalid bin Bandar) and my opposite number in the Saudi government, that they always been very willing to engage, and very willing to take my calls when we've needed to speak, and it has made a real positive difference.

· You've mentioned helping poorer countries fight the pandemic. What is the UK doing to help Yemen fight Coronavirus, especially with its weak health system, and as it is registering an increasing number of infections and deaths?

We are very concerned about the impact that coronavirus is having and could have on the people of Yemen. As you say, the provision of healthcare in Yemen is very much diminished, and we're very concerned particularly about the Houthi controlled areas where we don't have clarity of how bad the situation is. We worry about the impact that it can have on top of all the other difficulties that Yemeni people are suffering from.

The announcement from Saudi of the ceasefire over Ramadan was incredibly welcome. One of the most important things that can be done to help the people of Yemen is for there to be a complete and lasting ceasefire, so the humanitarian access can get to the people that require help.

I have recently announced at the Yemen Donor Conference £160 Million worth of support to tackle Coronavirus in the country. And we continue working closely with the Saudis and other international partners to de-escalate in Yemen, and to encourage particularly the Houthis to respect the ceasefire so that we can rebuild the country’s medical structures and that we can help the people of Yemen.

So again, the money helps, it's incredibly important, but the ceasefire is probably the single most important thing. And we are working with the UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths and the UN to bring about a genuine long-lasting ceasefire.

· Another country that is raising a lot of concern and is witnessing a new rise in infections, is Iran. Are you at all worried about how Iran is dealing with the pandemic within its borders and how that impacts the region and the world?

We have been concerned about the number of infections in Iran, and it's obviously very well known that we have had, and continue to have many criticisms of the Iranian government. When it comes to coronavirus, we have obviously been prioritizing humanitarian support, and we have worked to help Iran combat coronavirus, because, despite our differences, we want to see the Iranian people safe and well. It is in the regional interest, and our interest. And it's really important that Iran learns the lessons from around the world. And when it needs to take measures in terms of dealing with a potential second wave, that it is willing to take those measures. And we are willing to support them when they do the right thing. So I am concerned about the risks of a second wave of infections in Iran, and we will look to support Iran when they take the correct actions to deal with this.

· Has the pandemic distracted from security and economic cooperation in the region, especially in terms of maritime security?

Obviously, and quite rightly, coronavirus has been something that has demanded the attention of the international community both in the gulf and the UK and more widely. And that is definitely the right thing to do. But just because Coronavirus has dominated the news around the world, it doesn't mean that we've taken our eye off the ball of other challenges that pre-existed coronavirus. So things like maritime security, reducing conflict and regional instability, counterterrorism work, are all still challenges, and we are still very much focused on dealing with them.

And whilst we do speak with our friends in the Gulf about coronavirus regularly, we do still continue our strong work on countering terrorism and radicalization, and on economic prosperity, because we still have the challenge of the global economic downturn and oil price reduction. These things are having a real impact on a number of countries and people in the region, and we will continue working to make sure that our economies remain stable and vibrant and growing, because we know economic instability and political instability are bad news wherever they occur. So we will continue working in terms of security matters and economic matters, and building those relationships. And hopefully, once coronavirus is no longer the single dominating headline, people will recognize that the continued good work that we have between the UK and a number of Partners in the Gulf.

· On a more personal note, you have been appointed Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa shortly before the pandemic started. How have you personally experienced it?

I was elated, I was really pleased, when the Prime Minister offered me this role. It is a fascinating part of the world, I had the chance to visit Saudi before. And I know this is an intriguing and complicated and exciting part of the world, with some big challenges but also fantastic opportunities. And I was really looking forward to traveling and meeting people, and experiencing the culture, and the hospitality and the food.

And I suddenly find myself doing this wonderful job mainly from my dining room, over the telephone and video conferencing. And the food that I am eating is the same food as before, it’s no more glamorous.

But I have to say, the people I find myself dealing with are all having to address similar challenges at the same time. And one of the things that have been really pleasing for me to see is how willing my friends and new contacts are around the gulf to help me learn about them and about their work, over the phone, and by video conferencing, and they've been very patient.

It's always easier to get to know people face to face, and sometimes when you have difficult conversations, as we have had to deal with this challenge, it's so much easier if you have that face-to-face. I now have a number of people that I have very friendly relationships with, it feels like they're old friends, but we've never met.

I really look forward to the time when we can travel again, and I get to meet face-to-face with these people who I've become quite close to through the internet.

I don't really speak Arabic, but I've learned a couple of words and phrases. And I've now found myself saying “Inshallah” quite often.

As we look forward to the time when we can get back to a more normal way of doing business, I've been made very welcome and I really enjoy the job.

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