MODERATOR: (In progress) (Via interpreter) press conference for the minister of foreign affairs of Saudi Arabia and also Mr. Antony Blinken, the minister of foreign affairs from the USA.
FOREIGN MINISTER AL SAUD: (Via interpreter) In the name of God, we shall start. Hello, everyone. Greetings to you. First of all, I would like to welcome His Excellency Mr. Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State of the U.S. I would like also to welcome all of the observers and our distinguished guests today. I would like also to welcome Togo as our newest member amongst the 86 members of the global coalition, which is the biggest of its kind against terrorism.
In our meeting, we spoke about the liberated areas in Iraq and Syria, and we reiterated the priorities and the continuity of our efforts and endeavors in that direction, and to prevent further spread of the – of ISIS and prevent financing from reaching ISIS. And we have capitalized all of the efforts made by countries against ISIS. We spoke about the fight against armed militias and terrorist groups in west of Africa and the African region in general, which are spreading panic in Africa. And we have also focused on the importance of the role played by the global coalition against terrorism (inaudible) the Sahel countries but (inaudible) reiterate again as the threat of terrorism against Africa and that we are working on further cooperation in the face of this challenge.
We would like also to reiterate that we need to focus our work more in Afghanistan so that Afghanistan cannot be a safe haven again for terrorist groups. We need to work together on common challenges and provide the right environment for the – the repatriation of IDPs to Iraq and Syria, and to also recover the citizens or the diaspora in other countries.
And we have been working with countries that rejected to retrieve their nationals and are keeping this burden on the affected countries and areas and did not delve into rehabilitation. However, it – we recommended is that the relevant countries should work on retrieving those nationals and working on their rehabilitation instead of leaving them in the affected areas and affected countries where the burden of handling them will be on them.
We are also – were also focused on the different manners of multilateral collaboration within the framework of the global coalition, and we are going to continue, of course, in enriching the collaboration between us and the U.S.
And in the end, I would like to say that terrorism in all of its forms should never be associated with a specific religion or a specific race or ethnicity and should not result in any segregation or discrimination against any racial group. And Muslims should not be harassed because of their religion, for instance. And this is, of course, relevant and true for all other ethnicities.
Now, I give the floor to His Excellency the secretary general, Mr. Antony Blinken.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first of all, Foreign Minister Faisal, thank you. Thank you for your hospitality, thank you for bringing all of our regional and global partners together here in Riyadh.
When President Biden traveled to Jeddah last summer, he affirmed the importance of the Middle East to the long-term security and economic interests of the United States. And he made clear that we’re committed to continuing and deepening our partnerships in the region. Together, we can drive real progress for all our people, not only to address the challenges or crises of the moment, but to chart an affirmative vision for our shared future.
Over the last few days, we have advanced that progress on several fronts, working with our Saudi partners, working with the Gulf Cooperation Council, working today with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
The foreign minister and I just finished a productive meeting of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. The United States very much appreciates the leadership of Saudi Arabia not only in hosting this meeting, but for its contributions – constant contributions and crucial contributions – day-in, day-out to our mission. While our coalition has taken back the territory that ISIS once controlled and inflicted severe losses on its leadership, ISIS nonetheless remains an active threat.
This ministerial that we just had focused on several key areas of need. Those include stabilizing areas liberated from ISIS so that the group can’t exploit poor security, economic, or humanitarian conditions that leave people desperate; and also, as you heard from the foreign minister, repatriating foreign terrorist fighters and their families from al-Hol and other displaced persons camps. We’re also working to keep pace with evolving threats, including ISIS’s expanding efforts across sub-Saharan Africa and ISIS-Khorasan. Our 86-member coalition leaves this ministerial better focused and equipped to continue the mission to eradicate ISIS.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, both as bilateral partners and through the GCC, are working closely together to address several other challenges in the region.
In Yemen, when President Biden took office, war was raging. The country was experiencing the arguably the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Now we’re working intensively with Saudi Arabia and other partners to further consolidate what has been a 14-month long truce that we helped to achieve. This was a central issue in my discussions with the Saudi crown prince and the foreign minister, and today I had an opportunity as well to meet with Yemen’s President al-Alimi to discuss the path forward.
Our objectives are a durable ceasefire and an inclusive, Yemeni-led process mediated by the UN – one that meets Yemenis’ calls for justice, for accountability, for redress for abuses, and ultimately leads to a political resolution of differences in Yemen. Our Special Envoy Tim Lenderking will continue to work with the parties and partners in the region in the days and weeks ahead to resolve issues standing in the way of a lasting peace.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, together with the GCC, are also focused on Iran’s destabilizing influence in the region, including its support for terrorism and violent militia groups, the seizure of tankers transiting international waters, and nuclear escalation. The United States continues to believe that diplomacy, backed by economic pressure, by deterrence, and by strong defense cooperation, is the best way to avoid counter these dangerous actions. We support efforts by Saudi Arabia to de-escalate tension and stabilize relations.
The United States and our Gulf partners are working closely on the crisis in Sudan. Our two countries – the United States and Saudi Arabia – have been leading an intensive diplomatic campaign to get the two sides to agree to and comply with a ceasefire and to allow humanitarian assistance to reach the people of Sudan. We will keep working toward a durable cessation of hostilities and the swift formation of a civilian-led transitional government together with our partners in the Gulf and Africa and with the United Nations.
I also discussed with GCC partners increasing our joint efforts to combat illicit synthetic drugs like Captagon, which is having a devastating impact on young people throughout this region, just as fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are doing the same in the United States. This partnership will be an important part of our diplomacy to strengthen global cooperation on the growing challenge posed by illicit synthetic drugs.
Alongside my GCC and D-ISIS engagements, I also met with the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Mekonnen to review the ongoing implementation of the November 2 Cessation of Hostilities Agreement. That agreement ended the horrific crisis in Tigray. For peace to endure, the parties must acknowledge the atrocities committed and pursue accountability together with reconciliation. The United States will continue to partner with Ethiopia as it builds a credible transitional justice process to break the cycle of ethnic and political violence that has gripped Ethiopia and prevented it from reaching its potential for far too long.
The U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf extends far beyond addressing challenges and crises in the region. It is critical for expanding opportunity and driving progress for our people and for people around the world.
Through the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, the United States and Saudi Arabia are working together to deliver quality, sustainable infrastructure to benefit people in low and middle-income countries.
We’re expanding digital connectivity, including by using new mobile telecommunications technology like open, cloud-based radio access networks that are both secure and affordable.
We’re combating the climate crisis and accelerating the region’s clean energy transition through our bilateral Partnership Framework for Advancing Clean Energy that we signed last summer and that can unlock new solar, green hydrogen, and other renewable energy investments.
A key part of our strategy to advance a more prosperous, stable, and secure region is regional integration and de-escalation. The Gulf is more connected then ever – both as a region and with countries in the broader Middle East, including Israel. The United States will continue to play an integral role in deepening and expanding normalization.
As President Biden said in Jeddah, universal rights and freedoms – and the protections they bring – are a core priority for the United States. And the U.S.-Saudi partnership can be deepened by progress on human rights. That’s why we strongly welcome and support historic steps to increase women’s participation in public life in the workforce, to expand interfaith tolerance, among other reforms in the country’s ambitious modernization agenda. And that’s why we’ll continue to keep human rights firmly fixed on our bilateral agenda – a point I made clear in our meetings this week.
Last week, U.S. and Saudi astronauts returned to Earth after spending ten days together on a mission to the International Space Station. That mission included Rayyanah Barnawi, the first female Arab astronaut to ever go to space. In her first message from space, Rayyanah predicted that “the future is very bright.” To that, I say: let’s make it so, together.
QUESTION: (In Arabic.)
FOREIGN MINISTER AL SAUD: (Via Interpreter) (Inaudible) these challenges or – that are represented by the actions of Daesh brought the Kingdom to chair the particular group under the state minister of – Secretary of State of (inaudible) the United States. And I have already qualified the meeting as a meeting that lasts for hours, where we discuss many files. Actually, we reviewed these files in detail, and we shall continue to do so along with our brothers, the Americans. Thank you. Thank you.
The Kingdom actually joined the group in its firm belief in our partnership with the African continent, which we consider as a source – a particular source of particular importance of cooperation and coordination with the various African states, which all have links with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
We are copartners in development, and we feel our responsibility to preserve the achievements of those countries and particularly our common action in the face of the challenges for the stability of the continent. And this will reflect on the stability and security of the Kingdom itself and its neighbors. We feel the shared responsibility towards the African states that need capacities and (inaudible) in this area. And we have always stood up against Daesh in Syria and Iraq as a collective international community with the full cooperation and coordination. We shall continue to do so in supporting all international efforts in this sphere.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Really, I can only reiterate what the foreign minister has said. And, again, just as a reminder, this coalition – that is now 86 countries and organization strong, by our count is the largest coalition in the world – has had remarkable success since 2014 in taking back the territory that Daesh had seized in Iraq and Syria, in eliminating its senior leadership, and in minimizing the threat. But the threat remains. And beyond that, it is moving to other places, notably to parts of Africa, which is why we’ve had to focus today and in our coalition on some of the challenges being faced by African partners, notably in the Sahel and in West Africa.
So what’s notable about the coalition is the fact that it adapts. It’s flexible. And even as we keep the focus on Iraq and Syria to make sure that the Daesh threat doesn’t re-emerge in a meaningful way, we also have to make sure that we’re focused on areas where it may be more active. And as we’ve noted, right now that’s in Africa, and that’s why we have the focus of this coalition on Africa, in full partnership with African countries.
Last thing to mention. What is very notable from our discussions, today and in the all the work that we’ve been doing on this, is the imperative of having a comprehensive approach. Security is a necessary but insufficient element of dealing with the challenge posed by Daesh. And we heard, from partner after partner, the imperative of dealing with the concerns, the needs of marginalized communities, bringing economic opportunities, making sure that there is good governance and a transparent political approach. All of these things are critical to having success against Daesh, preventing it from recruiting and expanding in other places.
MODERATOR: The second question for Reuters.
QUESTION: Thank you, gentlemen. Mr. Foreign Minister, Your Highness, is Saudi Arabia seeking U.S. support to develop its own civil nuclear program in exchange for normalizing ties with Israel, like it’s been reported? And would you say that that is a nonnegotiable condition for you to normalize?
And then separately, Saudi Arabia in recent years has carried out many reforms, but rights groups also report increased repression. What is your response to that? And how big of a pressure do you face from your American counterparts on this issue?
Mr. Secretary, you discussed with Saudi Crown Prince the normalization issue. What progress can you report? How feasible is such a deal, given concerns that it might accelerate an arms deal, arms race with Iran? And on human rights issues, I’m wondering if you were able to receive any assurances from the Crown Prince towards the release of political prisoners and any U.S. citizens who are subject to travel bans. Thank you.
FOREIGN MINISTER AL SAUD: Thank you very much. First, on the issue of nuclear cooperation, it’s no secret that we are developing our domestic, civilian nuclear program. We would very much prefer to be able to have the U.S. as one of the bidders for that program. There are others that are bidding, and obviously we would like to build our program with the best technology in the world, and that will require a certain agreement to be in place. We have differences of opinion, so we’re working on finding a mechanism for us to be able to work together on civilian nuclear technology. But we intend to move forward on that program.
Normalization, I have said before and it’s quite clear that we believe that normalization is in the interest of the region, that it would bring significant benefits to all. But without finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people, without addressing that challenge, any normalization will have limited benefits. And therefore, I think we should continue to focus on finding a pathway towards a two-state solution, on finding a pathway towards giving the Palestinians dignity and justice. And I think the U.S. has a similar view, that it’s important to continue on those efforts.
You asked about human rights. You asked about reform. And I think it’s well known that we have gone through significant reform progress in the Kingdom. What we do in the Kingdom, we do based on our assessment of what’s in the best interest of our country, and it’s driven really by the needs and desires of the Saudi people.
You have had a few days here. I hope you have been able to see the significant changes happening in the Kingdom. However, we are always open to having a dialogue with our friends, but we don’t respond to pressure. When we do anything, we do it in our own interests. And I don’t think that anybody believes that pressure is useful or helpful, and therefore that’s not something that we are going to even consider.
But the priority, as I said, is achieving the goals that we have for our country. We are very focused on building a pathway towards a sustainable prosperity for the Saudi people. And I encourage you and anyone who has an interest and has a curiosity about it to spend some time in the Kingdom, to interact with the people of the Kingdom, and make your own judgment and your own assessment.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Humeyra. On the normalization question, first – as you know – we fully support Israel’s integration into the Middle East. And from day one, we have been working, both to deepen some of the existing agreements and also expand them to other countries. That includes Saudi Arabia. I think this would be a very important step forward, and it would certainly be a priority – and is a priority – for us. Integration is good for the region, for all concerned, and we will continue to pursue it. We discussed it here, and we will continue to work at it, to advance it in the days, weeks, and months ahead.
On the question of U.S. citizens and human rights more broadly, let me just say this. First, human rights are always on the agenda for the United States. It’s who we are. And indeed, I discussed human rights in our meetings with our Saudi counterparts over the past few days, and also made clear that progress on human rights strengthens our relationship. We will continue to underscore, both publicly and privately, the importance that we place on human rights and fundamental freedoms.
There’s something else that’s very important, and the foreign minister alluded to it. Saudi Arabia has embarked on a major effort, a historic effort to modernize its economy, to modernize its society. And part of that is going to be attracting to Saudi Arabia the best talent from around the world to visit, to pursue education, to invest, to partner, to work alongside Saudis. In our judgment, Vision 2030, as this initiative is called, will be a much more successful effort if Saudi Arabia is the most attractive place possible for people around the world to come to. And so I think it’s on its own merits and in Saudi Arabia’s interests to continue to pursue this modernization, including the expansion of human rights.
With regard to American citizens, as you know, and as you’ve heard me say many times, the welfare, the security of American citizens everywhere around the world is my number-one priority and responsibility. And that’s the focus of the Department of State as well. We continue to advocate on behalf of individuals to the greatest extent possible. I had the opportunity to raise specific cases. And beyond that, I won’t go into details.
MODERATOR: Sky News, (inaudible).
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) First question may be addressed to His Highness, His Royal Highness Prince. With all the efforts carried out, undertaken by Saudi Arabia – the efforts to conclude all these agreements regarding this – the Saudi territories.
Mr. Blinken, you said this morning that you do not want Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists. So how can you reconcile this and with the withdrawal of America from Afghanistan, which has opened the floor for terrorists, likes of which took place this morning in Afghanistan with many victims? So how can you reconcile? Thank you.
FOREIGN MINISTER AL SAUD: (Via interpreter) With regard to Afghanistan, I would like to express our heartfelt thanks for the good care and attention that we have had from the American side.
In dealing with the situation in Sudan, we have achieved a certain success. It has not been a complete success because the parties did not commit fully to the agreement. We shall do everything possible to alleviate the situation in Sudan and to reach agreements between the concerned parties. There are various legal issues that are underway; we may reach additional mechanism that would help us resolve the situation and to penalize any party that may deviate.
And we address our talk once again to our brother in Sudan, all of them, to spare the blood of the Sudanese and that we may work together to address this crisis through dialogue, away from armament, for that will not lead to any positive results. It will only result in further victims. Let’s therefore move towards dialogue and towards dealing with the situation in peaceful manners such as to spare the citizens the dangers of such crises. I am fully confident that our brothers in Sudan will rise up to the responsibility and respond positively to spare the citizens further demolitions and further hardships. We shall rely on our brothers in America and all other partners to move towards that solution. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. With regard to Afghanistan, we’ve made clear and we’ve demonstrated since ending America’s longest war that we would continue to be focused on our core national security interest in preventing the resurgence of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, and if necessary, taking action to deal with it. I think we’ve demonstrated quite clearly in recent months our ability to do just that, including eliminating a senior leader of al-Qaida, who was resident in Afghanistan. In addition, we’re working with partners, with neighbors to strengthen the capacity to deal with any terrorism that may be located in Afghanistan and emanating from there.
At the same time, of course, the Taliban is an implacable enemy of ISIS-Khorasan and is itself taking action against that group. But regardless of that, we’ve been very clear, and as I said, we’ve demonstrated our ongoing enduring capacity to take necessary actions to protect our security against any terrorism that may be emanating from Afghanistan.
MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) (Inaudible) the last question. Yes, you have the floor.
(In English) Al-Monitor, please.
QUESTION: Mr. Foreign Minister, has America’s reduced military footprint in the region created opportunities for China to forge deeper relationships with Saudi Arabia and others? And second, critics of Syria’s regional reintegration say Bashar al-Assad has done nothing to merit it. Does Saudi Arabia – sorry, did Saudi Arabia set any conditions in exchange for a serious return to the Arab fold? And Mr. Secretary, do you fear that China is seen as a more reliable partner in the region than the U.S.? And on Syria, the U.S. has asked countries who normalize to get something in exchange from Assad for their re-engagement. Do you have any evidence that normalization has yet resulted in any meaningful concessions?
FOREIGN MINISTER AL SAUD: So China is the world’s second-largest economy. China is our largest trading partner. So naturally, there is a lot of interaction and intersection with China. China is an important partner for the kingdom and most countries in the region, and I think that partnership has given us and China significant benefits. And that cooperation is likely to grow just because of China’s economic impact in the region and beyond is likely to grow as its economy continues to grow.
But we still have a robust security partnership with the U.S. That security partnership is refreshed on an almost daily basis. We have military exercises that are almost constantly going on, so we have cooperation, intelligence-sharing, et cetera, as we see in the effort in Sudan, as we see in what we’re doing together in Yemen. The partnership with the U.S. remains robust and strong, especially in those areas.
So I don’t ascribe to this zero-sum game. I think we are all capable of having multiple partnerships and multiple engagements, and the U.S. does the same in many instances. So I am not caught up in this really negative view of this. I think we can – we can actually build a partnership that crosses these borders. I think I’ve heard statements also from the U.S. about a desire to find pathways to better cooperation, even with China. So I think the – we can only encourage that, because we see the future in cooperation, we see the future in collaboration, and that means between everybody.
On Syria, it’s very important that we understand the context. The context is that the status quo was not working and was generating an ever-increasing burden on countries of the region and on the people of Syria. Regardless of what one thinks about Bashar al-Assad, we – the only pathway to resolving the humanitarian challenges that we face in the aftermath of the Syrian crisis is to find a pathway to addressing the main issues, and for our perspective, the humanitarian are the main concern. How do we ensure that there is a safe pathway for refugees to return? How do we ensure that there is some political reconciliation? How do we address the issue of drugs? All of these things require a dialogue with Damascus.
And you will have seen the statement issued after our meeting in Amman, which we held before the return to the Arab League, in which Syria made very clear commitments on all of those fronts to work with us to address them in a way that meets the expectations not just of us in the region, but of the international community. And we are now going to pursue those commitments made by Damascus.
In the end, we have to think about the humanitarian issue. We have to think about the people of Syria and how do we alleviate the situation that they’re living in. And we believe that this is the best pathway forward. The other efforts that had been ongoing have shown no progress for many years and only increased the difficulty of the situation. I mean, if you look at Lebanon, which is already in a very, very difficult economic situation, they cannot carry this burden of two million Syrian refugees for much longer. And in order to avoid a situation where they are at risk, we need to find a way for them to return safely.
So we believe that this path can deliver results where others have not, and we will work very closely with the U.S. and others to ensure that that is within the expectations of the international community, including in line with the United Nations Security Council resolutions that are relevant to the situation.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So with regard to China, I would give almost the identical answer to the foreign minister.
First, our engagement in the region, our partnerships in the region, our work in the region is not about any other country. It’s about these partnerships and the benefits that we can bring by working together – benefits we can bring to our people, benefits in many cases that we can bring to people around the world – and I described some of those earlier.
At the same time and more specifically, with regard to China, we’ve also been very clear we’re not asking anyone to choose between the United States and China. We are simply trying to demonstrate the benefits of our partnership and the affirmative agenda that we bring in what we’re trying to do. In everything that I’ve heard over the last two-and-a-half years and over the last three days from partners throughout the region – again, many of whom were here in Riyadh – the United States remains the number one partner of choice for, I think, most countries in the region.
With regard to Syria, again, no secret that we did not think that Syria merited readmission to the Arab League, but at the same time, we also see that we have the same goals when it comes to what we’re trying to achieve. Now, our position has been very clear: We’re not going to be in the business of normalizing relations with Assad, with that regime. It has not earned that step toward recognition, toward acceptance. But because the goals are very much the same, I think moving forward, and, as the foreign minister described, we’ll see if we can achieve some progress.
We all want to reach a solution in Syria that’s consistent with the key United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. We want to expand humanitarian access for the people of Syria. We want to ensure, of course, that ISIS can’t re-emerge. We want safe conditions for the eventual return of refugees. We want to counter Captagon trafficking, which is doing so much damage in the region. We want to reduce Iranian influence.
So what we’ve heard and what you just heard again from the foreign minister is the intent of our partners to use direct engagement with the Assad regime to further demand progress in these areas and other areas over the coming months. Now, I have to admit we are skeptical of Assad’s willingness to take the necessary steps, but we’re aligned with our partners here on what those steps are and on the ultimate objectives.
FOREIGN MINISTER AL SAUD: Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much.
(Via interpreter) This will conclude this press conference, so thank you, Your Highnesses, and all the participants.
(In English) Thank you so much for joining us here in Riyadh.