RIYADH: The youngest and first female Foreign Minister of Pakistan Hina Rabbani Khar, has earned regional and global prominence for her remarkable foreign policy knowledge and tough negotiating skills. In a wide-ranging interview with Ghazanfar Ali Khan, Riyadh bureau chief of Arab News, she spoke about her two-day visit to Saudi Arabia and articulated her position on Afghanistan, Pakistan-India ties, Syria and many other pressing issues.
Here is the full text of the interview:
What were the highlights of your talks with senior Saudi officials including Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal? How do you evaluate the strength, and potential for growth, of Saudi-Pakistani relations?
I am delighted to visit Riyadh at the invitation of my Saudi counterpart Prince Saud Al-Faisal. We discussed the strong bilateral ties and the general situation in the region with special reference to Riyadh-Islamabad ties, Afghanistan and Syria. In fact, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have had strong historical ties that date back to the independence of Pakistan. I can’t remember any issue that Pakistan has faced — whether a natural calamity such as an earthquake or flood — where Saudi Arabia has not extended a helping hand. The aim of my visit is to strengthen the strategic relations between the two countries. I have had intensive discussions on the road map that will set out a new vision for the relationship between our two countries.
Saudi Arabia is a pillar of stability in the region. It has a unique and irreversible role to play in the region, in the Islamic world and the world at large. Moreover, we were very happy to discuss the details of the road map, which was first initiated by Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah (deputy minister of foreign affairs) during his visit to Islamabad a few months back. My counterpart Prince Saud discussed with me the contents of the road map and hopefully both sides will adopt the road map that will institutionalize our relationship.
We had a robust political dialogue and we agreed to institutionalize our relations and establish mechanisms to further strengthen and diversify co-operation. It was decided that the economic and commercial relationship between the two countries would be strengthened through concerted efforts and that the business communities in the two countries would be involved to enhance bilateral trade and investment.
Can you share the specifics of the road map? And what about Saudi-Pakistani cooperation at political, commercial and cultural levels?
The road map primarily aims to institutionalize the existing relationship. We have very strong ties, but these ties need to be institutionalized … in the field of defense, economic and diplomatic cooperation or in the field of cultural exchange. At the moment, we have a joint ministerial council and a joint business council. All these institutions meet regularly to ensure that they contribute in a more proactive fashion to help boost overall relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
On the political level, the bilateral political consultations have been taking place for the last 60 years, at the ministerial level and also at the leadership level. It will be unfair for me to spell out details of the road map, because it has not yet been approved by the two sides. But I can tell you that Prince Saud and I have agreed that this will be a major step forward, which will substantially enhance relations in all fields.
The Saudi side has expressed satisfaction at the status of relations. I also renewed the invitation of Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Ashraf to Crown Prince Salman to visit Pakistan. I would also like to say that the Kingdom has been working to ensure peace and stability in the region and has also helped the process of Afghan reconciliation.
Since assuming the portfolio of minister of foreign affairs, there has been a change in Pakistan’s policy towards the Middle East, India, Afghanistan and many other countries. What are the key aspects of this change and the major regional and international issues that figured during your talks with Saudi officials?
Pakistan has strategic ties with Saudi Arabia. Hence, we discussed all issues affecting the region, in fact the whole range of issues including the synopsis of the regional situation, the emerging challenges and how to deal with them were reviewed by me and my Saudi counterpart. Afghanistan is an excellent case in point because Saudi Arabia has always played a proactive and positive role in Afghanistan.
The type of respect and credibility the Kingdom commands is rare for any nation ... so Prince Saud and I had a discussion about Afghanistan and what Pakistan is trying to do to ensure peace and stability in that country. We hope that we will be able to intensively engage ourselves in Afghanistan for peace and security.
The Taleban has been making contact at different levels and talking to various countries including the United States. An office in Qatar to facilitate this mission was also set up. How do you evaluate the situation given the importance of Afghanistan for your country?
Saudi Arabia has a unique role in the Muslim world. Now there are entities in the world and certainly in the region, that unfortunately use the name of Islam, and associate with Islam for non-Islamic activities. The entity you refer to is a classic case of that. Islam has no place for those who choose to commit suicide, not to speak of (launching) suicide bombs. Suicide bomb attacks that kill others cannot be espoused by any Islamic entity at all. I would like to add here that the Kingdom has dealt with terrorism very effectively inside its own territory; and it is a lesson we all should learn from.
There was a time when Saudi Arabia invited different factions of the Taleban and Afghan Mujahideen for talks and a treaty was signed in the Kingdom to ensure peace and security in that country. Is there any move by Pakistan to request Saudi Arabia to play a similar role again?
The Kingdom was and is still helping to boost the prospects of peace in different countries including Afghanistan. We welcome the commitments made by Saudi Arabia and hope that Riyadh’s cooperation will lead to a successful conclusion. We are seeing practical steps taken by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to honor their commitments towards Afghan peace talks.
Pakistan, a newly elected non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, is beginning its two-year term by assuming the rotating presidency of the UNSC. Pakistan is planning to hold open debates on issues that it sees of current relevance among the UN’s top priorities. Will you please share the agenda?
This is the first time that Pakistan has assumed its UN Security Council presidency during the present two-year term. We will focus on peacekeeping and counter-terrorism, which are important issues for all UN member states. It is a little-known fact that Pakistan is, most of the time, either the largest or the second-largest contributor to the peacekeeping force of the UN.
Pakistan, which was elected last year as a non-permanent member of the 15-member UN Security Council, will launch the UN discussions on peacekeeping, the biggest and the most prominent area of work of the organization and one of the most important tools at the disposal of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security.
Over the past 52 years, Pakistan has sent 144,711 troops to 23 countries and 41 missions. Many Pakistanis have sacrificed their lives while battling to ensure peace and security in different war-torn nations, especially in Africa. Terrorism, from which Pakistan has also been suffering, will be another major topic to be taken up by the UNSC.
You visited India a few months back and had wide-ranging talks with the then Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna. In addition, a meeting was recently convened in Islamabad to discuss the proposal to grant most-favored nation (MFN) status to India? Should we conclude that Islamabad has had a change of heart towards India and that this indicates a shift in foreign policy?
The policy shift has been there. We have intensively engaged with India to improve the atmosphere of trust, and to send a very serious message to India that Pakistan wants a relationship with New Delhi which is not held hostage by the past. Islamabad feels very strongly that regional peace and stability are a prerequisite for any country — be it India or Pakistan. Look, we have 60 years of negative narrative and a difficult and hostile past … and I feel that Pakistan has shown leadership in trying to change that narrative, it has taken bold steps to reach out to India, not only to improve the relationship but transform the relations to a comfortable level.
Now after 40 years, the policy of normalizing trade relations with India by Pakistan is an important gesture. So, I give my government and President Asif Ali Zardari a lot of credit for showing the leadership, while making unpopular decisions. MFN is a misnomer and can be misperceived. I would like to use the term normalizing trade relations. As far as the trade relations with India are concerned, the Pakistani cabinet took a decision and that decision holds today.
We, however, feel that (in terms of) the reciprocity to the many gestures that Pakistan has shown or sent, India has not been as proactive as we expected. But, we have invested in this relationship and we believe that this is the way to go forward.
You recently received a prominent Kashmiri leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq at your office in Pakistan. What is your opinion on involving Kashmiris in negotiations on the fate of Kashmir?
Pakistan feels that the people of Jammu and Kashmir should be included in the dialogue process between India and Pakistan. You know that the then Indian Foreign Minister Krishna had a successful trip to Pakistan. I hope that the new Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid will be as committed as he has conveyed to us. I think we have to get out of those preconceived notions of stated positions … (where we doubt each other). We should start looking at things with a new problem-solving lens rather than taking and talking of the stated positions time-and-again.
India is building dams in the disputed area of Kashmir, which has affected the agriculture and crops in Pakistan. The land has become arid in the Pakistani state of Punjab. Will such a policy by India compound the problems for Pakistan? What is your comment on this issue?
These are prehistoric views. These views are not supported by the theory or practice of economics. The practice of economics tells us that whenever and wherever a larger country has trading relations with smaller countries, the smaller countries benefit. We have also signed a free trade agreement with China, while everybody is building protective walls around them. This is the essence and resilience of the Pakistani economy.
However, when it comes to the water issue, it is really a big issue. It has the potential to become even a bigger issue between the two countries. Therefore, we continue to discuss this issue within the framework of our bilateral consultations. We have in place the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, which offers an excellent mechanism for solving these problems. But, both sides will have to be sincere in letter and spirit to find a solution to the problem as per the provisions of the treaty. I am comforted by the fact that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has time-and-again reiterated that he and his country are committed to the treaty.