RIYADH: The US is working closely with Saudi Arabia to ascertain what happened off the coast of the UAE on Monday when two Saudi oil tankers were attacked.
“We need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war,” said US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Abizaid.
“We certainly know that the ships were damaged. They were damaged by outside action of some sort.”
Abizaid was speaking during a roundtable with selected deputy editors-in-chief of Saudi publications in Riyadh.
It was his first interaction with the media since taking over his ambassadorial position last week.
“We can all speculate about the likely source, but as a diplomat I’d prefer to wait to see the report (of the investigation),” he said.
“It’s clear that the Iranians have been threatening for some time, and I find it unhelpful that the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran) — the Quds Force in particular — continues to threaten in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Yemen. We shouldn’t find it surprising that they might threaten elsewhere,” he added.
“It’s time now for the Iranian people to think about their better future. They need a Vision 2030. They need a path towards the future,” Abizaid said, referring to the Saudi reform plan.
The mullahs in Iran are very fearful of moderation and afraid for the sustainability of their revolution, he added.
“It’s not in their interest, it’s not in our interest, it’s not in Saudi Arabia’s interest to have a conflict,” he said.
Abizaid said Saudi Vision 2030 “is fairly breathtaking,” and challenges are to be expected when implementing reforms.
The Kingdom’s reform program has a chance to shape the region in a completely new way, he added.
“It’s a bold attempt to reshape society, a bold attempt to diversify the economy, a bold attempt to think new, and I’m of the opinion that it’s in the interest of the United States to help in what way we can,” he said.
“In the past, our relationship was all about petroleum, but in the future our relationship will be about trade of ideas, of thinking about the future, thinking about institutions, thinking about moderation,” Abizaid added.
“I’m very hopeful that moderation led by Saudi Arabia will be one of the most important and significant ways to defeat terrorism and extremism.”
Talking about the challenges in implementing reforms, he said: “It’s easy to talk about reforms, but it’s hard to do reforms. It revolves around cultural and societal change. Those are hard things to do.”
He added that before he came to Saudi Arabia, he spent time in Ukraine as a senior adviser to its armed forces to help them reform and achieve NATO standards.
“It was a very long, slow, difficult process. Some days you take three steps forward, some days you take three steps backward,” he said.
“But the key to success is making enough forward momentum and giving the bureaucracy — which is always resistant — to embrace the reforms,” he added.
“When people … see the results of a more diversified economy — which I think is essential — of a more tolerant society — which you’ve already started to go down that road — I can see the change just in five years since I was here last time. It’s fairly remarkable,” he said.
“Now young Saudis have a chance to have a good job, and an opportunity to have a better life for their family. I think these things are remarkable.”
Abizaid said he wants the US to be a partner in enabling these reforms, “not by being in the middle of the oil-buying business, but by being in the middle of institution building.”
The knowhow, creativity and experience of American companies allow them to be at the forefront of change, he added.
“If we can find ways to enable that partnership, we can move together in a very powerful way,” he said.
Saying he had spent a lifetime in the region fighting as a soldier, he added: “My kids have all fought out here. I don’t want my grandkids fighting out here.”
He said: “I’m committed to peace. I want to work with you to find a peaceful path — provided the neighbors of Saudi Arabia let us find the peaceful path. I’m hopeful that they will.”
On Yemen, he said “the good people of the region” are tired of war and are looking for a way out.
“The Yemenis will find a way ahead, but they don’t need the unhelpful hand of the Iranians moving them towards constant war,” he added.
“They (Yemenis) need to find a way that allows the UAE and Saudi Arabia to bring them back to the brotherhood, and move the brotherhood forward in a way that has been fruitful in the past.”
Referring to the Houthi militias in Yemen, Abizaid said: “Do we really think that the Houthis have missiles that can be launched on their own without Iranian help? Does anybody believe that? No way.”
He added: “We know that they’re receiving Iranian help and advice, and we know that they wouldn’t be launching their missiles towards Saudi Arabia without the Iranians telling them it’s a good idea to do so.”
Abizaid is “excited” by the imminent arrival in Washington DC of Princess Reema bint Bandar as Saudi Ambassador to the US — the first woman to represent the Kingdom as an ambassador.
“I think it’s a great signal to my people,” Abizaid said. “I think it’s a step that probably Saudi Arabia will take more and more over time in other places. Again, it’s an example of a bold move.”
Abizaid has already had a brief meeting with his new Saudi counterpart. “My impression was that she is very smart, very capable, very charismatic and I wish her all the best,” he said.
“She’s new and I’m new, and I said to her, ‘Maybe together we can work in ways that will help both our countries move forward in good positive ways.’
“I hope people here understand how important it is for your country to show the willingness to embrace a person of her quality as a leader of your country. I’m quite proud of the fact that you did that.”