King Salman’s UN speech and Saudi foreign policy
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic forced the UN to hold its General Assembly remotely this year. This annual ritual has been a centerpiece of UN activity, with scores of world leaders congregating in New York for a week of “general debate,” usually during the third week of September. Bilateral meetings held between leaders were as important as multilateral “high-level” meetings.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the UN’s founding, so plans were made to celebrate the important milestone with great fanfare, but they have had to be postponed because of the pandemic. However, there was at least one advantage in holding the UN meetings remotely: More heads of state took part in the proceedings than usual. King Salman, for example, addressed the gathering for the first time since assuming power in 2015.
The king’s remarks last week represented a clear formulation of Saudi foreign policy, both in its principles and practice. They are worth reading in full, but here is a brief on some of the issues raised in the speech.
On foreign policy principles, King Salman stressed “shared human values of peace, moderation, tolerance, and solidarity between all countries and peoples while facing the extraordinary common challenges.” He referred in particular to the daunting challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic and its health, humanitarian and economic repercussions. He announced that Saudi Arabia had provided $500 million to support efforts to combat the pandemic and improve the global response.
King Salman called for an intensification of international efforts to face the challenges of climate change, poverty, pandemics and organized crime, and noted Saudi Arabia’s generous humanitarian and development assistance programs, which have provided more than $86 billion of aid to 81 developing countries over the past three decades.
King Salman then addressed two important issues: The scourge of terrorism and violent extremism and the threats Iran poses to Saudi Arabia and the region at large.
As Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, he said that Saudi Arabia, through its special place in the Islamic world, shoulders a special and historical responsibility to safeguard the truly moderate and tolerant faith from the distortion attempts of terrorists and extremists. Islam is certainly innocent of the heinous crimes and atrocities committed by those forces. Terrorism and extremism find fertile ground in countries beset by sectarian division and weak state institutions. To win the fight against terrorism, we should therefore be firm in dealing with state sponsors of terrorism, sectarianism and extremist trans-border ideologies.
Success in the fight against terrorism and extremism requires intensified joint action against their funding and their ideology. Saudi Arabia has pioneered international efforts in these two areas. It has funded the New York-based UN Counter-Terrorism Center and established the Global Center for Combating Extremism (Etidal) in Riyadh. The Saudi capital also hosts the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center.
As a UN founding member, King Salman said Saudi Arabia was a pioneer among nations seeking international peace, security and stability. He said the Kingdom is keen to prevent conflicts, mediate disputes and bring them to a peaceful conclusion. Its regional policy is based on international law and the UN Charter, seeking to promote peace, stability, prosperity and political solutions for disputes between nations.
Despite those efforts, the Middle East and North Africa region has been facing great security and political challenges and decades of malign attempts to impose extremist projects, disregarding people’s aspirations for development, prosperity and peace.
King Salman pointed out that, over the past several decades, Saudi Arabia has extended its hand in peace to Iran and sought open and positive engagement with it, receiving Iranian leaders several times to discuss ways to build good neighborly relations based on mutual respect. But those relatively good days did not last.
Saudi Arabia welcomed international efforts to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. However, time after time, the Iranian regime exploited those efforts to increase its expansionist activities and build its terror network, wasting the fortunes and capabilities of the Iranian people on projects that have produced only chaos, extremism and religious strife in the region.
That path of aggression culminated last year in the attacks targeting oil installations in Saudi Arabia, in stark violation of international law and in clear breach of international peace and security. King Salman said those attacks demonstrated that this regime has no regard for the stability of the international economy or the security and safety of oil supplies to global markets. It has continued, through its surrogates, to target civilians and civilian structures in Saudi Arabia with more than 300 ballistic missiles and 400 drones, in clear violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 2216 and 2231.
The king dismissed partial solutions and attempts to appease the Iranian regime, which have failed to stop its threats to international peace and security. He stressed the need for a “comprehensive approach, decisive international stand and a fundamental solution to Iran’s support for terrorism and malign interventions in the internal affairs of other countries, as well as its attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and expand its ballistic missile program.”
King Salman dismissed partial solutions and attempts to appease Iran, which have failed to curb its malign activities.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
King Salman’s speech provided several examples of Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, focusing especially on Yemen, where Iran’s proxy, the Houthi militia, has wreaked one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. And, in a sharp rebuke to Hezbollah, he blamed its hold on Lebanon’s government for the catastrophic explosion in Beirut last month. He said that disarming this “Iran-supported terrorist entity” is needed for the Lebanese people to regain “their security, stability and prosperity.”
The section of the speech dealing with Palestine and the Middle East peace process was critically important and carefully phrased. This subject has always been of great interest to King Salman, who in 2018 hosted a “Jerusalem summit” of the Arab League that restated the common Arab position. This topic needs further exploration in the future in light of the king’s remarks before the UN.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1