German FM praises relations with Saudi

Frank-Walter Steinmeier has praised Germany's close relations with Saudi Arabia and vowed to further develop them

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The German Minister for Foreign Affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has told Al Arabiya News the Middle East needs to break through the cycle of sectarian confrontation if it is to reach a long lasting peace.

Speaking in an interview with Al Arabiya, he said he was aware of the concerns voiced over Iran’s ambitions and added that Germany was “under no illusions” about Iran’s involvement in Syria or its support of Hezbollah.

And he said he did not believe the nuclear deal would automatically solve these problems.

But the minister said he remained hopeful that deal reached in Vienna would provide “more, not less” security for the region.

Steinmeier recently berated the Israelis for the criticism of the deal, saying that they should not be so critical of the deal and take a closer look.

Here, the minister speaks with Al Arabiya News about his beliefs, hopes and concerns for the Middle East and Germany’s relationship with the Gulf.

Q: Your Excellency, what does the Iran nuclear deal mean for the Gulf Cooperation Council countries? And how do you assess Gulf “concerns” amid tensions arising from the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1? Are there any kind of guarantees and assurances to ease these concerns?

A: I am aware of the concerns about Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and that these concerns go beyond the nuclear issue. We’re under no illusions about Iran’s role in Syria or its support of Hezbollah and the religious militia in Iraq. These problems cannot be solved overnight with a nuclear agreement. At the same time, I firmly believe that the Vienna agreement will bring more, not less, security to the countries in the region. Without this agreement, we would be in the same situation again as we were in 2013, when Iran, despite all the sanctions, was on the verge of producing enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb. Since the start of the negotiations with Iran 12 years ago, we have constantly maintained close contact with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. In the end, we reached an agreement that effectively and verifiably blocks all possible paths by Iran to nuclear weapons. What counts is the implementation of the results of the Vienna agreement, and we will pay close attention to this. I am certain that the implementation of the Vienna agreement will also strengthen those voices in Iran who want their country to open up and to have peaceful relations with its neighbours.

Q: With your status among permanent members of the Security Council in these negotiations, do you believe that your main presence in the negotiations was due to your good relationship with Iran? And how do you view this relationship?

A: Germany, France and the United Kingdom originally started the negotiations with Iran, with the aim of blocking Iran’s path to nuclear weapons through peaceful means - at a time when Washington was not yet willing to speak directly with Tehran. Despite profound differences with the regime in Tehran, Germany always attached great importance to keeping the lines of communication open. Our philosophy is that - especially in situations of conflict - it is important not to allow the channels of dialogue with difficult partners to break down.

Q: What is Germany’s position towards Turkey’s plan for a ‘safe zone’ free of ISIS in northern Syria? And do you see a solution to the Syrian crisis in the near future?

A: All efforts of the United Nations to compel the conflict parties to reach a peaceful solution have so far failed in Syria, in no small part due to the lack of unity in the Security Council and opposing interests between the US and Russia. I sincerely hope that we will soon be able to overcome this, for even Moscow can see that the Assad regime is in increasingly dire straits. All regional stakeholders have a part to play here - after all, it is in their interest that Syria does not completely disintegrate. United Nations Special Envoy de Mistura has just presented new suggestions on how this type of process could get off the ground. I believe this is the right approach.

As regards discussions on a safe zone, this is not a new idea. But given the large number of groups and militias in the area, the difficulty has always been how safety can be brought about and who can take on responsibility for it without fuelling new conflicts.

Q: How does Germany perceive the Iranian regime’s role and interference in the Arab region’s affairs, starting with Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain, and lately in Yemen?

A: We see this very realistically. The support of Hezbollah and its role in the brutality of the Assad regime has cost many lives. At the same time, you have to take a close look at what is happening. The situation in Syria is different to the situation in Bahrain. I am very concerned that not only in Syria and in Iraq, but also from the Gulf to Yemen, the fatal perception is taking hold that what we are witnessing are not political conflicts that can be resolved politically, but rather an implacable enmity between Shiites and Sunnis. We need to look together for ways to break through this cycle of sectarian confrontation and for tools and mechanisms that could help to restore trust.

Q: Germany is the largest European country by far to receive large numbers of immigrants; do you believe Germany has succeeded in integrating them into its social fabric, especially Muslims? And will there be new measures to tighten up the immigration system in the coming years?

A: Germany received the second largest number of immigrants after the United States last year. Both our economy and our society benefit from the fact that active and dedicated people from all over the world like living in Germany and find opportunities here. And we made a policy decision to take in Syrian refugees, out of sympathy with the dreadful fate of the people in Syria. With the exception of the countries that border Syria, Germany now has the highest number of Syrian refugees of any country in the world! Unfortunately there is a small, but vocal, minority in Germany – like everywhere else, probably – that incites anti immigrant feeling using primitive slogans. The vast majority of the population opposes these views, and thousands of people all over Germany do voluntary work in their towns and municipalities to help refugees and offer them hope for the future far from their homes.

Q: How will Germany enhance its economic presence in Saudi and GCC markets?

A: There are two reasons why the German economy has a very strong position in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries. German companies are successful because their products stand worldwide for the highest quality standards. German engineering has become a brand in itself. Apart from that, many German companies have been based in the Gulf region for decades and know that you need to build up sound relations and trust. Increasing numbers of German companies are also manufacturing in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Saudi Arabia, and are training young people. This is of great importance for the future, and it is an area where Germany has a great deal to offer.

Q: What are your views on the future prospects for Saudi-German bilateral relations?

A: Germany and Saudi Arabia have been partners for many years. We know each other well and trust each other. We both hold a leading position in our respective regions. We are both members of the G20. Our governments are firmly committed to working closely together, be it on crisis management in the Middle East or on topics such as energy and climate protection. There is mutual respect between our two governments. And as is often the case between close partners, there are of course some issues on which we do not see eye to eye. This will not stop us from trying even harder to reach out to each other and from working together in even more areas. In a world full of conflicts and uncertainties, strong partners need to work together and to look together for paths to a peaceful future and prosperity for the coming generations.

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