This is my first official visit to Saudi Arabia, but it’s already my fifth meeting with you, Minister [of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud].
This visit illustrates the positive dynamics in our relations, which are getting stronger and more comprehensive, but still a lot has to be done.
This Cooperation Arrangement, which we [just] signed is another testimony of our joint commitment to reinforce our relationship. The Agreement establishes a platform for regular consultations between the European External Action Service and the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs on political, security and other issues of mutual interest.
Allow me to say that the European Union is the second biggest trading partner of Saudi Arabia and the biggest foreign direct investor. But building from this strong economic relationship, we want to go beyond economics and to widen the scope of our interaction - to make it more strategic, also on regional issues and global challenges such as the green transition, climate change or digital revolution.
There are unprecedented reforms underway in Saudi Arabia and we support this modernisation drive that we welcome very much.
We are also engaging on human rights, with the first ever Human Rights Dialogue that we held in Brussels last Monday. And we sincerely hope it will produce concrete results and will contribute to our mutual understanding.
With my partners here in Riyadh today, we discussed also regional cooperation. I welcomed and recalled European support for the normalization of relations within the family of Gulf countries.
We appreciated a lot that the Al Ula Summit put an end to the Gulf internal crisis and we welcome the recent bilateral talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In this context, I shared my observations, as Coordinator of the JCPOA – the nuclear deal with Iran - I briefed my partners, especially the Minister, on the prospects of restarting Vienna talks about the nuclear deal with Iran - I hope soon.
We have also exchanged views about Afghanistan and discussed the situation in the neighbouring Yemen. What is happening in Yemen is a terrible tragedy for the people there and it has also impact on the whole region. We appreciate Saudi Arabia’s efforts aimed at ending the fighting and I condemned the cross border attacks against the Kingdom’s territory. And I also have to mention the reluctance of the Houthis in order to build a ceasefire that we have been asking for.
This morning I met United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg and I stressed our call on all actors in this conflict to fully support a peaceful settlement to the conflict. Later today I will also meet Yemeni President Mansour Hadi.
We talked certainly and unavoidably about global issues, among them the climate. I am happy that we managed to launch dialogue between the European Union and Saudi Arabia on energy, where we look at common points between our Green Deal and the Saudi Vision 2030 when it comes to renewable energy, emission reduction and carbon capture. I strongly believe that Saudi Arabia can and should lead by example in the Gulf and the wider region on these issues. Together we can make a difference for the world’s climate, especially in light of the upcoming climate summit COP26. I trust that robust commitments by Saudi Arabia in Glasgow will inspire also other energy producers.
Let me conclude, Minister, with mentioning a meeting I had this morning with the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council [Nayef Falah Al Hajraf]. We are currently discussing possibilities to step up dialogue and cooperation between the two regional blocks. We already had a ministerial meeting last week in New York and I informed my partners about the intention to convene a Joint Cooperation council early next year, because this Joint Cooperation Council has not been meeting since the last six years and this is something that has to be amended. We are ready to resume negotiations of a modern, comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council.
I think that such regional cooperation, in addition to robust and dynamic bilateral relations between us, can only bring benefits to our regions and to our people. And that’s why I am so happy and honoured, Minister, for your invitation, for this meeting, for the signing of this Arrangement that represents the starting point of a new and more profound era in our relationship.
Q. There are talks about the forthcoming round of the negotiations with Iran. When will the next round will start with Iran? Did you find cooperation from the Iranian side? Regarding the nuclear programme, the Gulf countries in the region ask to be involved in the Iranian negotiations since they all live in the same region and [could be affected by] the destabilising Iranian activities and the Iranian missile programme. What is the position of the EU involving them in these negotiations?
I can compliment your answer, Minister [for Foreign Affairs, Faisal bin Farhad Al Saud]. As Coordinator of the Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), I am employing all my energy and my team in order to make these negotiations successful. I hope that the negotiations in Vienna will restart soon with a new Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran, [Hossein Amir-Abdollahian]. We talked about it in New York, and the answer was positive although without a concrete date. But time is running and it is urgent that these negotiations resume. I understand Iran needs time to study the file, but the other participants of the JCPOA are becoming worried by the delay. We have to use this opportunity to call on the Iranians to go back to the negotiations quickly. I understand how important these negotiations are important for the region and particularly for Saudi Arabia.
I understand your concern because it is an important cornerstone for your security. But not only for your security, also for the security of the broader Middle East, but also for Europeans, for ourselves, and for the whole world. There is a big difference between Iran becoming [a] nuclear [power] or not becoming [a] nuclear [power]. Thanks to this deal, I think that we have avoided Iran becoming [a] nuclear [power] and we have to go back to diplomatic channels to avoid this from happening. The region is not directly involved in the negotiations, because the negotiations are between Iran on one side and international community -represented by a certain number of countries, among them three European countries, [on the other side]. My role is just the role of Coordinator, trying to put these two parts –Iran, on one side, and the international community, on the other side- together. And on these negotiations, even if Saudi Arabia and the countries in the region are not directly sitting in the negotiation table, their concerns and their worries will be taking very much into consideration.
Q. Is the EU willing to truly withhold humanitarian aid and undouble humanitarian catastrophe in order to enforce European political leaders’ conditions in Afghanistan?
The European Union announced from the beginning that we were going to increase our humanitarian support to the Afghan people multiplying by four from 50 to 200 our support. We are already doing that.
The first planes with humanitarian help has already landed in Kabul. I have to say that the distribution of this humanitarian help has been performing well without any kind of interference. The cargo has -the load of the planes - has been distributed to the NGOs and to the international organisations in charge with managing it, without any kind of problems and this help will continue.
Certainly, we know that there are other problems in Afghanistan that cannot be just reduced to humanitarian help, because the Taliban are in great difficulty, for example, to pay for the salaries of the workers in the hospitals and in the schools. This is something that concerns us, because if we want to let the girls go to school, first there have to be schools. If there are no schools, nobody can go to school. But, it is something that is a different issue of the humanitarian help.
We said from the beginning that we were going to increase humanitarian help, but keeping you on hold the other support. This support is still on hold and will continue to be on hold until we can evaluate the behaviour of the Taliban.
Q. You have strategic relationships with Saudi Arabia and there is a strategic partnership with the [European] Union. When we talk about Saudi Arabia and Yemen, we have daily attacks from ballistic missiles. Was this discussed at your talks with the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal? How it is restricting Houthis backed by Iran and how are you working and which are your efforts on maintaining the energy resources with the Saudi government?
Certainly, we have been talking about it. I have been talking with the Minister [for Foreign Affairs, Faisal bin Farhad Al Saud] about how important it is to take this situation into our consideration. We know that Saudi Arabia is suffering attacks from ballistic missiles coming from Yemen, launched by the Houthis. And it is certainly not them who are building these missiles, someone is providing them.
It is part of our approach to the problem. We are putting all our political and diplomatic pressure in order to make the Houthis understand that it is not the way of solving the problem. The war in Yemen has not a military solution, it has to be ended through negotiations that have to start with a ceasefire and an important part of this ceasefire is to stop the attacks against Saudi Arabia, which we strongly condemn. And we will continue doing so. We will continue expressing to the Houthis that this kind of behaviour is against all kind of international law and that to stop it is part of the process of bringing a political solution to the war.
Q. On Afghanistan, you outlined this morning after your stop in Doha the seriousness of the economic and humanitarian crises facing Afghanistan, without finding a solution for restoring more of the humanitarian assistance from the European Union and the rest of the world. Given that you stated these five benchmarks for the new government and that they are not meeting many of them and given the intensity of the crisis in Afghanistan, is there any sense of short-term steps that could be taken? Like unfreezing certain assets or encouraging the IMF to lease some funds that were frozen when Kabul failed? Is there any way to ensure any control if the Taliban uses these assets?
Certainly, the economic stability in Afghanistan is of concern. The economic stability is something different from the humanitarian situation. One country may have a dire humanitarian situation, but their economy can still work. As a country, you might have economic difficulties and not a humanitarian crisis. Let us make the difference between the two things. I want to be clear. Since the beginning we said that we are going to support the Afghan people in order to face the big humanitarian crisis that the country is suffering. Because humanitarian help is not for the government, it is for the people. It is provided independently of the political situation. It is politically neutral. If someone is starving, you help them, whatever the colour of the government of this country. This has to continue and this has to be increased. It is happening and [it] will happen quickly. Because if the humanitarian help does not reach Afghanistan -in the north of the country before the winter-, then it will never come, because the difficulties of the geography and the wintertime will prevent it from happening. It has to be done now, quickly. It is being done and we will do it as much as the Taliban allow [us] to do it and facilitate it.
Another different thing, allow me to be clear on that, is the support to the government. Since the beginning, we stopped it. Not only the European Union, but the international organisations. And the assets of the Afghan government abroad were frozen, logically. Then, everybody – I think – is aware that Afghanistan was so much dependent on the external aid -the share of their budget that was paid by international organisations or donors was so big - that if everybody cuts it, then there is a big risk of economic collapse. And if the economy collapses, then the humanitarian situation will be much worse, the tension of people for leaving the country will be bigger, the terrorist threat will be still bigger. And, so, the risks emanating from Afghanistan, affecting the international community will be bigger.
Certainly, it is a dilemma, because if you want to contribute to avoid the collapse of the economy, in a certain way, you can consider supporting the government, and this is not the case. We do not want to support this government. [Our support] depends on their behaviour and their behaviour, until now, is not very encouraging. It is not very encouraging. The five benchmarks that we proposed, that we adopted at the Foreign Affairs Council immediately after the fall of Kabul, certainly, they are not being very much fulfilled. So, I think that not only the European Union, but the international community will have to look at that. From our side, we will study carefully the situation and before the G20 meeting I am trying to call for a meeting of the Development Ministers of the European Union to study this situation and to give the right answer.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-211726