MICHAEL HOLMES: Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, a key player in the Middle East politics, says he fears the conflict in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and, of course, Iraq could explode into a global crisis. King Abdullah was speaking to a newspaper in Spain on the first leg of a European tour.
Well, Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal is with him. He joins us now from Madrid. And we’re going to spend a lot of time talking with you about events in Middle East.
But if I can, if I can begin with this crisis that involves that controversial author, Salman Rushdie. He has, of course, been given a knighthood by the queen, and that’s created a lot of concern, particularly in Pakistan, most recently, where officials have come out and said that the Fatwa that was placed against him was valid, and this knighthood could lead to violence. What’s the attitude of your government to this knighthood?
PRINCE SAUD AL-FAISAL: Well, my government doesn’t have an attitude towards it; I have an opinion. I don’t know what the criteria of giving knighthood is, but I doubt it is for creating controversy. There are probably many other people who have brought understanding between people, and they would be, it seems to me, more worthy of receiving such an honor.
HOLMES: Let’s move on to other things. There’s so much we need to cover here. The Palestinian situation in Gaza, we had the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister today saying they’re backing Mahmoud Abbas. What do you think of the situation there, and what potential it has to really explode? I mean, the U.S. saying that they approve of Mahmoud Abbas as the democratically-elected president, but they don’t approve of the democratically elected Hamas government.
PRINCE SAUD: Well, we had an Arab League meeting last Friday, and it was confirmed that the legality of the president. As you know, he appointed the national -- the last government. So, he was elected, but he selected the government. And there is a difference there.
But the Arab League stands firmly with the presidency and with the legality. The situation is tense, and there is an Arab League also committee that is established to look at the events, what happens there, a fact-finding mission first, that reports to a ministerial committee, and then hopefully a return to the Makkah agreement.
HOLMES: What can be done in the short term? The US says it will release funds -- you as well -- to the Fatah side of things, to Mahmoud Abbas, but not to Hamas. And, let’s face it, there’s over a million Palestinians in Gaza who may be waiting a long time to get the benefit of that money. How do you bring these two together? Saudi Arabia did broker an agreement between Hamas and Fatah. And then only weeks later they’re shooting each other.
PRINCE SAUD: Well, we had warned when we -- the agreement was signed that unless this agreement leads to acceptance of the national government which accepts the peace plan of the Arab world, there -- and help is sent to the Palestinian people to see that their conditions will change once they have a government of national unity working for peace. Unless these things happen, the fragile agreement will break down.
Unfortunately, this is what happened. So, we’re trying to mend the situation. And the most important element of that is a decision that all the people who have left Gaza must return to Gaza. And the (inaudible) people who were driven out of Gaza must return to their homes.
HOLMES: I want to move on to Iraq, if I can now, obviously a place of great concern to Saudi Arabia. It’s in your neighborhood, and there is an awful lot of violence there, and the potential for that to break out of Iraq’s borders towards Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, other countries in the area. Are you concerned about the so-called Shia Crescent? And, in particular, Iranian influence in Iraq?
PRINCE SAUD: Well, we’re not concerned about Shia presence in Iraq. They’ve always been there. They’ve always lived in peace with their Sunni brothers and the other religious sects and ethnic groups. What we are concerned is the implementation of the program that was announced by the government of Iraq, for national reconciliation, for changing the constitution that was so objectionable to some Iraqis, for the pacification program that would bring in all the Iraqis -- for the treatment of all Iraqis as equal citizens.
If this program is implemented, and quickly enough, we think that there’s a chance for Iraq to be a peaceful country and live at peace with its neighbors.
HOLMES: Very quickly, before we have to take a very short break, I want to ask you, do you think the Americans should be in Iraq at this time?
PRINCE SAUD: Well, they are there. I mean, how can they leave without leaving the country in a better condition than what they found it?
HOLMES: OK, we got to take a short break now. When we come back, though, we’ll continue our discussion. U.S. viewers will get all the latest American headlines. The rest of us will get to spend a few more minutes with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia. And we’re going to talk to him about U.S. influence in the region in general. A lot of other issues as well. Stay with us.
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PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: My position hasn’t changed, and that is all options are on the table. I would hope that we can solve this diplomatically.
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HOLMES: Now continuing our conversation with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Prince Saud Al-Faisal. You heard there what President Bush said this morning, Your Excellency -- all options are on the table. How do you think a nuclear Iran should be handled by the US?
PRINCE SAUD: Nuclear proliferation is something that has to work on everybody. There can be no exception and maintain the rule of nuclear -- no nuclear proliferation.
Unfortunately you can’t turn a blind eye to one country and expect the issue of nonproliferation to go away. Once a blind eye was turned to Israel it made for proliferation in the region.
We want a region free of nuclear bombs. We want that and we are hopeful that Iran will also want the same thing, and in order to do that the whole region must be free of nuclear weapons.
HOLMES: Are you saying then that as long as Israel has a nuclear capability then the world can’t ask Iran to not have it?
PRINCE SAUD: No, I’m saying that if we want to prevent proliferation we must make it a systematic way, because who wants an atomic bomb? Either a country that wants to threaten its neighbor, or a country that wants to protect itself from its neighbors. And in both cases, they must be diffused. And the only way to do that is to have a nuclear-free region.
HOLMES: But Israel is not giving up its nuclear capability. Sir, Israel’s not giving it up?
PRINCE SAUD: Well, why not? I mean, is there a special case for Israel that it can use whatever weapons that are available, and nobody else can use them?
HOLMES: Well, that’s exactly the situation.
PRINCE SAUD: Why the exception?
HOLMES: Israel is not likely to give up its nuclear weapons. If it does not give up its nuclear capability, should Iran be stopped from having a nuclear capability? Would Saudi Arabia consider having a nuclear capability?
PRINCE SAUD: We are assured by Iran that they are not looking for a nuclear capability. We hope that assurance comes through. We don’t think it’s justification for establishing nuclear capability for Israel to have it. But in order to have a free zone from nuclear weapons, Israel must give up or puts its program under the auspices of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
HOLMES: There has been much -- you mentioned Israel. There has been much criticism of the U.S. and its loss of credibility in the Middle East, and the fact that despite what we saw today (inaudible), the U.S. has not been an engaged broker in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. What’s happening with your own government’s discussions with Israel to try to bring about serious talks about a solution?
PRINCE SAUD: Well, we haven’t had negotiations or discussions with Israel? We had proposed a peace treaty, which unfortunately Israel has refused. And by that refusal it has refused peace not only with one country in the Arab world, but with the whole Arab world at the same date (ph).
HOLMES: Is there no back channel, no links at all going on, no talks being discusses at all between your country and Israel?
PRINCE SAUD: No, there aren’t.
HOLMES: Yes. Can I ask you very briefly then -- we’re almost out of time -- what can the U.S. do to improve its standing in the Middle East as a broker?
PRINCE SAUD: Do what the president has said to do -- establish a Palestinian state, independent and viable, next to Israel, to live in peace with Israel. That’s what the United States can do.
HOLMES: All right, Foreign Minister from Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, joining us from Madrid. We’re about to lose the satellite. Thank you so much for your time today.
PRINCE SAUD: Thank you for having me.