Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,
Special to Arab News
Sherard Louis Cowper-Coles, Britain’s ambassador to the Kingdom, explains a polint during the interview in Riyadh. (Arab News photo)
JEDDAH, 12 November 2003 — Sherard Louis Cowper-Coles is the United Kingdom’s new ambassador to the Kingdom. The following are excerpts from a wide-ranging interview he gave to Khaled M. Batarfi of Al-Madinah newspaper.
Khaled Batarfi: Many believe that the war on terror is actually a war on Islam. This view is helped by some views from the United States, some of which accuse Islam of advocating terrorism and idol worship. What is Britain’s position?
Sherard Cowper-Coles: People who make that kind of comment about Islam are betraying their ignorance. I believe Islam is a peaceful religion. I believe that Christians, Jews and Muslims are all People of the Book, and that there is far more in common between the three great monotheistic religions than there are things that separate them. People who try to take that sort of negative view of Islam are ignorant and have a misguided notion of what true Islam stands for....
And my job as ambassador here in the country which is home to two of Islam’s holiest places is to build bridges. I represent a country in which a significant proportion of the population is Muslim and the great majority is nominally Christian, and we have huge common interests in emphasizing the common values the two kingdoms share.
Q: So how do you explain your war on terrorism?
A: Personally I prefer not to speak so much of the war on terror as a war against individual terrorists. We obviously need to take top security measures against terrorists and detain terrorists who have threatened violent acts. But we also need to ask ourselves what it is that causes people to resort to terrorism. Are there excuses, are there pretexts, which drive young people who are often without hope and without jobs to resort to terrorism. If those grievances have a basis in reality, we need to address them.
My Prime Minister (Tony Blair) said many times that he believes that extremists across the Muslim world have used what is happening in Palestine as a recruiting sergeant for terror, as a cause, a grievance which young Muslims everywhere care deeply about and which leads some of the more extreme ones to resort to violence and terror. I don’t believe that violence and terror are ever justified. But we nevertheless need to understand that there are people who are quite ruthless in exploiting grievances like that to recruit terrorists.
Q: But don’t you agree that without solving the Palestine problem there will always be deep, potentially aggressive anger in the Arab and Muslim world?
A: That is why Tony Blair is pressing so hard to address the problem of Palestine. Only one country can really solve it, and that is the United States, with help from others. And that is why Blair and Crown Prince Abdullah and others have now been encouraging President Bush to get him engaged, and that’s why President Bush has published a road map and has become engaged in a way which didn’t seem likely at the beginning of his administration.
Now, there is a long way to go. But the Americans are now addressing the problem of Palestine in a way that they were not before. Talking about Palestine, I want to praise Crown Prince Abdullah’s initiative, which was quite a remarkable breakthrough in getting every single Arab country around to vote in favor of a resolution recommending normal relations with the state of Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the lands it occupied in 1967. And, I have to say, I don’t think that initiative has received the recognition it deserved in the Middle East, Israel or in the United States. It was a great act of statesmanship, one on which, I hope, we can build in the months and years ahead and we can use that exchange of recognition; that recognition has to be a compromise to make progress in Palestine.
Q: Does Britain contemplate an exit plan for its troops from Iraq, especially before the next election. If so, does it need an approval from its American partner? And at what price?
A: We’re constantly contemplating when and how the coalition should hand over power to the true representatives of the Iraqi people. We have to recognize that Saddam Hussein has been removed from power. The threat of weapons of mass destruction has been neutralized and the Iraqi people are starting to enjoy degrees of freedom and prosperity that they never knew before. A few facts: There are well over 100 newspapers in Baghdad, and electricity generation is at levels higher than it was before the war. Most of Iraq’s schools have been refurbished; massive work is going on Iraq’s infrastructure.
There is still a serious but localized problem of security, particularly in the center of the country. That is obviously a top priority. It would not be responsible for us having got into Iraq just simply now to walk out again leaving chaos behind. Our duty is to ensure stability, in our own interests and in the interests of Iraq’s neighbors, in the interests of the whole region. That is what we’re doing. But I can give you an absolute assurance that power will be transferred just as soon as is practical.
Q: How soon? Do you have a time frame?
A: We don’t have a clear time frame, but the UN Security Council Resolution 1511 says that a timetable for establishing a representative Iraqi government has to be formalized by Dec. 15.
Q: What are the costs for Britain in Iraq, and how are you planning to cover them? Does Iraqi oil figure in the equation?
A: It doesn’t. We will not be drawing down the income from the Iraqi oil to pay for the costs of the British forces in Iraq: They will be paid by the British taxpayer.
Q: And the costs of reconstruction?
A: Britain is giving very large sums. We have pledged over £550 million to Iraq’s reconstruction.
Q: To what do you attribute the relative calm in the areas you control in Iraq, and the lesser anger directed at you from the Arab media and public, compared to the United States?
A: Well, I’m not an expert on what is going on in Iraq. But I would say there are a number of factors. First, the religious makeup of the south, the Shiite majority there. I also have to say that for historical reasons British forces have a long experience of peacekeeping in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. And that may play a small contributory part. But not having been there I can’t speculate. America is clearly the No.1 target for all sorts of desperate groups.
Q: What about the public and the media?
A: America is the only surviving superpower, America led the occupation of Iraq and America is seen by many as a symbol of the imagined tensions between the West and the Islamic world.
Q: Europe was and still is part of the group sponsoring the road map project for Middle East peace. How do you evaluate the steps taken by Israel and the Palestinian authorities?
A: Well, not enough has happened on either side. That’s quite clear. The Palestinians need to be more active in restoring security in Palestinian areas, but in doing so they need help from Israel, in particular, the Israeli policy of targeted assassinations, the use of disproportionate force. It has not helped the Palestinian authorities in their efforts to clamp down on terror.
Q: How do you view the Israeli attacks and assassinations even during the cease-fire negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian factions?
A: There is a mixture of motives. From outside, one needs to ask whether such actions are in the best interests of Israel or moderate Palestinians.
Q: In your perspective, why is the Ariel Sharon government doing this?
A: I’m not a spokesman for the Sharon government. It is not for me to describe why a particular government does things. But I do think that suicide bombers — whoever perpetrates them — are not acting in the interests of the Palestinian people. They have perpetuated a cycle of violence. They produce a very strong emotional reaction of anger, resentment not only in Israel but also elsewhere in the world, including the United States. I condemn utterly the suicide attacks, but at the same time we have to ask those of us who want peace in the Middle East what is it that drives young people to commit suicide in this terrible fashion. And the answer must be in part the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. What we need is parallel steps by both sides, and all my experience in Israel and Palestine leaves me to believe that those parallel steps will not be undertaken without a strong and benign international presence.
Q: Do you think peacekeeping will work?
A: I don’t think peacekeeping will ever work. I think the only people who can guarantee security are either the Israeli security forces in the rather unsatisfactory manner they are trying to do that or, much better, reformed Palestinian security forces with international help and support. And what needs to deliver that is not a multinational peacekeeping force — American, British or Jordanian soldiers patrolling the streets of Jenin or Beit Hanoun. But you do need international observers and monitors to give the Israelis confidence that the Palestinians are maintaining law and order and to give the Palestinians confidence that every time there is an incident the Israelis will not re-enter the territory.
Q: How does Britain see the future of the Middle East after the Iraqi war? A haven of democracy and prosperity? Or a more realistic view?
A: Our foreign policy has always been to take the world as we find it and not as we would wish it to be. We’re pragmatists rather more than we are idealists. The truth is we are in there and we have to make the best of it in the interests of the people of Iraq above all but also in the interests of the region and in the interests of the countries outside the region. And of all the European countries I would put Britain as the country with the greatest experience and the largest range of interests and assets in the Middle East — cultural assets, intellectual assets, financial and economic assets, and security assets, a whole range of British engagement in the Middle East. So we all share a common objective.
I wouldn’t like to talk about the havens of democracy. What we want in Iraq is a stable, representative government which gives the people of Iraq a better and safer and freer life than they had under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.
Q: You talk about political solutions, but what about economic and social ones?
A: The way to tackle terrorism is a combination of tough security policy but also a range of political, economic and social measures to drain the support to the terrorists. Chairman Mao said guerilla terrorists were fish who swam in the sea of popular support. What we have to do is to drain the sea by a range of imaginative measures.
And this is what we did in Northern Ireland with some success, where we recognized that deprivation, lack of economic opportunity, lack of political opportunity, social problems in the Catholic areas helped produce a climate in which the terrorists thrived. So as well as taking tough security measures against the terrorists we spent billions of pounds and huge amounts of political effort trying to address the wider political, economic and social problems on which the terrorists feed and which they exploit for their own ends. And in the policies we have announced in terms of spending money and offering advice and consultancy, the United States’ own Middle East partnership initiative. All these are designed to recognize that tackling terrorism is a much more complicated problem than simply chasing the terrorists.
Q: Do you believe in regime change or gradual reforms?
A: Britain believes in gradual change. Stability is most likely to be protected by gradual change. It is not really possible or desirable to produce wholesale radical change across the whole region.
Q: With the help of the United States do you think the Middle East can be pushed to effect a change in its attitude toward reforms?
A: No. We believe that many of the governments in the Middle East are committed to reform. And we are there to offer help and advice and support where we can.
Q: Arab-British relations have been subject to some tensions before and after the Iraq war. How does your country plan to restore its usual good relations with the Arab world?
A: The best thing we can do to help produce good relations not only between Britain, in fact, the West as a whole and the Arab world is to make real progress in Iraq and real progress on Palestine.
Q: How do you respond to charges that you exaggerated the Iraqi danger and fabricated evidence that it possessed WMD? And how will this affect the reelection prospect of Mr. Blair?
A: Well, the British people will make up their own mind on Mr. Blair’s future. British elections won’t be held until June 2006. Which means there is plenty of time. On the question of allegations of weapons of mass destruction, all I can say is that British intelligence believed in very good faith that Saddam had such weapons and there was a danger that he would use them. And Lord Hutton’s interim report is just that: An interim report. Let’s wait and see what the final report says.
Q: Is it affecting the credibility of charges against Iran?
A: It is too early to say whether we are wrong or right on that. All I can say is that British intelligence is believed to be honest. It genuinely believed on the basis of information it had.
Q: Some hawks in the American administration still see their job unfinished without regime changes and earthshaking in other Middle Eastern countries. Where does Britain stand on this?
A: It’s not British policy to promote regime change.
Q: How does Britain see the US project for economic and political development of the Middle East?
A: As I said earlier, we strongly believe that security is best achieved through political, economic and social development. We strongly welcome the American Middle East partnership initiative. In this regard the move of Saudi Arabia to join the World Trade Organization is something we welcome.
Q: Would Britain follow in the footsteps of the United States toward bilateral free trade agreements with Middle Eastern countries?
A: Trade is now the responsibility of the European Commission in Brussels. And the EC is hoping to start by promoting free trade among all the 12 Mediterranean partners in the European Union by 2007. That will give the Union’s Mediterranean partners access to the market of 450 million people. In parallel to that the Commission is also negotiating to improve trade arrangements with countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Q: What are your views on the Sharon government’s stand on Arafat, the security wall, Syria and Jewish settlements?
A: On the wall we are concerned about its route. It’s very important that Israel does not take unilateral steps that prejudice the peace process or which unilaterally seize areas of Palestinian land. At the same time we recognize Israel’s right and duty to protect itself. On Syria we very much believe in engagement — a dialogue with Syria. Prime Minister Blair has visited Damascus, and President Assad has visited London.
On settlements, we have always taken the view that the transfer of the Israeli population to the territories occupied in 1967 is illegal under international law. That’s the view of the British government, the US and every government around the world. We believe that the problem of settlements is a major problem not just for Palestinians but for the Israeli government, too. It should be solved as part of an agreement which results in Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967.
Q: Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad has accused the Jews of controlling the world media. Most European countries took a strong position against him, except for France. Where do you stand on this issue?
A: We do not think that sort of racial typecasting is helpful.
Q: After the Riyadh bombing, will the UK government review its position allowing elements of Saudi opposition supporting terrorism taking residence in Britain? If so, what kind of policies and procedures will be taken?
A: We keep a very close eye not only on the Saudi opposition but also on anyone in Britain who may be seen to promote terrorism. Under the British Terrorism Act 2000, it is an offense to support or encourage the commission of terrorist acts overseas. We keep the activities of all sorts of groups in the UK under close review. At the same time we have a law which protects the freedom of speech subject to various limitations and we have to respect those laws while making sure that they are enforced.
Q: Some Saudi businessmen complain that the performance of your trade departments in Riyadh and Jeddah is below expectations. What plans do you have to improve their performance?
A: I have had good reports of the excellence of commercial departments in Riyadh and Jeddah. Of course, we are constantly looking to ways of improving.
Q: Some note the absence of the usually strong activities of companies marketing Britain as an investment venue in areas such as real estate, education and joint ventures. They wonder if this is an outcome of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
A: Well, I wasn’t aware of that. I think that there is as much eagerness in Britain as ever for investment from Saudi Arabia and from the Middle East generally.
Q: Many see the independence of Britain’s economic policies as a thorn in the side of Europe, particularly with reference to interest rate changes and lukewarm attitude to Europe’s position vis-à-vis US grievances in the WTO. How do you answer such perceptions?
A: I think the whole world, including the European Union, benefits from the success of the open UK economy and that is something people should be giving thanks for. We look at particular issues such as sanctions, particular trade issues on a case-by-case pragmatic basis; this will not certainly be a lukewarm attitude. We decide what we think is in the interests of the United Kingdom.
Q: When can we see a united European front toward major issues and world troubles? Do you see an end to the apparent rift between Britain and influential partners like France and Germany?
A: I don’t recognize the premise of the question. Tony Blair, President Jacques Chirac, Chancellor Schroeder, and Prime Minister Berlusconi are in very, very close touch. I don’t see any rift between Britain and its European partners. We had differences over the war in Iraq; we are now united behind the Security Council Resolution 1511. There is a very large measure of agreement on the Middle East peace process, our support for the road map and many other areas, including European defense, which complements NATO rather than undermines it.
Q: Last question. If Britain were to choose, which camp would it prefer: Europe or the United States?
A: The whole purpose of British foreign policy is to avoid having to choose. We believe that Europe benefits from our close relationship with the United States, and the United States benefits from our position at the heart of the European Union. It’s a win-win situation.