Interview with His Excellency Bogdan AURESCU, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Bogdan AURESCU: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia did not have any diplomatic relations with Socialist countries, except for the USSR and China. Only after 1990 and especially after 1991, when the USSR collapsed, did Saudi Arabia became more open to the above-mentioned states, due to the opportunities provided by their resources, especially human resources (very well trained medical and teaching staff, as well as highly qualified specialists in the oil industry).
On the other hand, our country was interested in having diplomatic relations with this key player within the Middle East and in the Islamic world, which could also provide countless cooperation opportunities to the two countries’ mutual advantage.
Romania has had strategic relations with the Arab states during certain historical periods. After 1989 we lost a number of partnerships in the Arab-Islamic world. Do you believe that Romanian-Saudi relations could relaunch those partnerships?
Bogdan AURESCU: Of course. Not only could these partnerships be relaunched, but we could also create the appropriate basis for extending them to the rest of the Arab states, due to Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance in the region.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a key player in the Persian Gulf area. A few years ago it laid down the basis for economic cooperation with the Gulf States. How does this organization influence economic relations with the Arab states in the region?
Bogdan AURESCU: In 1981, Saudi Arabia was one of the founding states of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (or the Gulf Cooperation Council – GCC), with its General Secretariat headquartered in Riyādh. In addition to a single market, this organization is determined to create a single currency, as well as a central bank with the potential to be a very active player in the international financial system. Last but not least, we must also acknowledge Jordan and Morocco’s formally expressed wish to become part of the organization in 2011.
Within Brussels talks on the dossiers of the European Union’s common trade policy, Romania is a supporter of developing economic cooperation with Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which are important economic partners for the Union. We believe that at this point in time political will is needed to relaunch GCC-EU negotiations on the signing of a new free trade agreement, which requires enhanced efforts to identify ways of reaching a compromise on delicate issues, as well as taking into account the stipulations of similar agreements signed between the two sides, to ensure a similar advantage level with respect to other global partners.
We must not risk losing our competitiveness in the mutual exchange of products and services, in the context of an expanding regional and international network of free trade agreements.
The situation in the Middle East is quite complicated. Before 1989 Romania was involved in resolving the situation in the region. Can we still talk of a bilateral partnership regarding the Middle East Peace Process?
Bogdan AURESCU: The main mediation mechanism in the Peace Process, which has, in fact, established the two states’ vision as a goal undertaken by the international community, is the international quartet (EU, UN, Russia, USA). We may speak of Romania’s wish to contribute positively to the Middle East Peace Process in a way that would be in accordance with the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian nations to develop in a peaceful and secure way. We are supporting all the international stakeholders involved in efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.
After the outbreak of the conflict in Iraq, Saudi Arabia became involved, along with the international coalition, in ensuring regional security. Can we speak of strategic partnerships with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at present, regarding the export of security to the conflict area?
Bogdan AURESCU: Romania is a member of the anti-ISIL coalition, just as Saudi Arabia is. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s role in ensuring regional security is acknowledged by all international stakeholders. We are cooperating in a very efficient manner with Saudi Arabia in combating terrorism. Beyond expressions such as ”strategic partnership,” it is the way in which we cooperate that is important and I can confirm that there is a very good basis for enhancing such collaboration.
Regional instability generated by the developments in Syria and the reemergence of attacks by the ISIL terrorist organization are top priorities on the international agenda. How does the world see Saudi Arabia as an exporter of regional security?
Bogdan AURESCU: Riyādh, along with other important regional and international stakeholders, is very much involved in backing general efforts to annihilate ISIL’s actions. Recent positions, both by political decision makers in Riyādh and Saudi clerics, show that the Kingdom is stepping up its efforts to fight trans-national terrorism.
You are among those well-informed on the situation in Ukraine. Let us not forget that six years ago you played a decisive role in The Hague Trial. At present we are witnessing the emergence of an open conflict between Russia and Ukraine. We know, at least partially, what Saudi Arabia’s response is. Do you think that the steps taken by Saudi Arabia, in the context of this conflict, have any impact on energy projects promoted by Romania? Would we have the opportunity to develop partnerships on energy with Saudi Arabia in this complex state of affairs?
Bogdan AURESCU: Creating partnerships on energy requires a thorough analysis, an enhanced and sustainable effort and must be placed in a broader regional context. Finding energy alternatives is crucial, but cannot be done overnight. If we are able to find win-win schemes, of course we can speak of partnerships on energy.
Romania has a good tradition of cooperation on energy with countries in the region, while Romanian energy companies, starting with those who deal with drilling equipment and ending with those involved in hydrocarbon processing, are internationally recognized for their expertise. From this point of view, we are open to any forms of collaboration with Saudi Arabia or other countries in the region, including in terms of building the capacity of staff in the energy field.
Regarding military relations we all know that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has developed strategies and entered into partnerships with the US and NATO. Are there any such partnerships for Romania, of course targeting international terrorism?
Bogdan AURESCU: In today’s global age, no state is exempt from the threat of terrorism. The recent terrorist attacks in France and Denmark have emphasized the concrete need for enhanced cooperation at a European, as well as a global level in our fight against terrorism, including in our attempt to strengthen the EU’s role in this respect.
Romania is a firm supporter of enhanced international cooperation on fighting terrorism. It is only through such a concerted effort, as well as a wider and more coherent approach that we can take concrete steps towards a final goal, which is making sure that the threat will not increase and that attacks in Europe and in the world will cease. The foreign policy aspect is important leverage in combating terrorism.
As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, just as I have said before, there is a growing interest, shared by both our countries, to actively participate in annihilating this global-impact phenomenon.
The external risk to the security of EU Member States posed by foreign terrorist fighters has become a domestic threat. This is why we need a structured and coordinated approach to the internal and external aspects of preventing and combating international terrorism, bearing in mind that ISIL and other terrorist organizations are attracting thousands of Western nationals.
On a political and operational level, the EU and EU Member States are currently developing a response to terrorist threats and to the phenomenon of foreign fighters in the post-Paris context, an intense effort materialized in the European Council Declaration adopted by Heads of State and Government on 12 February 2015, the Declaration of the Council of Ministers of Justice and Internal Affairs (Riga, 30 January 2015), and the conclusions of the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs (9 February 2015).
The European Council and EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs have decided that the Union’s foreign relations should contribute to combating the threat of terrorism, which is growing in certain parts of the EU’s neighborhood, in Syria and Libya. Bolstering cooperation with partner states in the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahel is also a prospect, but also with the Western Balkan states, including through projects meant to enhance the capacity of these partners to deal with the challenges of terrorism and to improve the management of EU assistance.
Romania is firmly committed to international efforts to combat terrorism, both within the EU and within international organizations, the UN, OSCE and NATO. Romania has joined the ”International Anti-ISIL Coalition” and supports the implementation of UN SC Resolution no. 2178 on combating foreign fighters. Moreover, in exercising the Presidency-In-Office of the OSCE Security Committee, Romania promotes the involvement of this regional organization in the general efforts to fight terrorism. Our country believes that the international response to terrorism, especially the response by European states, should be devised in accordance with human rights and fundamental freedoms. This is why, at the meeting of the Council of EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs on 9 February 2015, as food for thought, we suggested recalling the usefulness of the interwar initiative to establish an International Court of Justice with jurisdiction over international terrorism cases, in whose establishment a Romanian lawyer and diplomat, namely Vespasian Pella, was involved.
Meetings with H.E. Ambassador Al Rassi revealed that Romania’s relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had been on an ascending trend. How would you characterize the bilateral economic relations? What about the cultural relations?
Bogdan AURESCU: In the 20 years of diplomatic relations that will be celebrated in March, we have seen an upward trend indeed. However, this should not prevent us from noticing that bilateral trade, for instance, is well below the real potential of the two economies. A figure of about half a billion US dollars annually does not reflect our common capacity and shared political will. For example, Romania can become one of Saudi Arabia’s ideal partners for agriculture products. We also need to emphasize Romanian expertise and tradition in the hydrocarbon industry, the medical or the IT fields, where it is possible to enhance bilateral cooperation.
With regards to culture and education, it is important to know that negotiations have recently been finalized for a bilateral agreement to be signed in the near future, as a highly effective instrument for extending bilateral cooperation. As a project for the near future we are considering an exhibition of the works of a contemporary Romanian painter (Corneliu Drăgan-Târgovişte) in Riyādh, in the context of celebrating 20 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
During your visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia you attended high-level meetings with His Majesty King Salman and Saudi dignitaries. Can you give us more details on aspects of interest regarding bilateral relations?
Bogdan AURESCU: I made that visit strictly to offer my condolences for the passing of the former Saudi sovereign. We are planning to carry out bilateral action in the near future, in order to better identify opportunities for cooperation, especially in the economic field.
Saudi academic education is one of the best there is. Do you think that Romania could train Saudi specialists in oil and gas in an academic environment in Romania? What about Romanian specialists in biotechnology and green energy in Saudi universities? Are there such bilateral agreements?
Bogdan AURESCU: I think it is important that each party brings its best contribution to strengthen bilateral relations, including with regard to education. Romania is interested in developing cooperation in terms of education with Saudi Arabia. In order to do this, we are seeking to enhance the bilateral legal framework, so as to facilitate direct contact between educational institutions and student exchanges.
In this regard, we are considering signing an agreement on cooperation in science and education between the Ministry of Education and Scientific Research in Romania and the Ministry of Higher Education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This document has already been negotiated and agreed upon by both parties. Moreover, there are agreements on the recognition of studies carried out in Romania, signed by universities in Saudi Arabia and the ”Carol Davila” University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest and the ”Ovidius” University in Constanţa.
The educational offer from higher education institutions in Romania and the opportunities for cooperation are diverse and may correspond to the interests of potential Saudi-born students. Based on our national legislation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers 85 annual scholarships to non-EU citizens on three levels (bachelor, master’s and doctorate), in areas such as political and administrative sciences, journalism, technical studies, oil and gas, agricultural sciences, veterinary medicine, architecture and the arts. We would be glad to see young Saudis becoming part of the great family of foreign students in Romania.
Direct cooperation between higher education institutions and the promotion of academic mobility between the two countries can also occur through participation in joint projects carried out under specific European programs.
At the end of this interview, please give us your point of view on the role of geopolitics at present.
Bogdan AURESCU: Developments during the past two decades might have created the impression of a predictable reality on a global level, which would not exceed certain controllable parameters. International relations, as a whole, seemed to have entered a post-modern phase, where classical notions related to geopolitical location, interests and brute strength relations had a tendency to occupy a rather marginal dimension.
However, recent years have drawn our attention to acute crises and increased global and regional risks. These developments are likely to worry and alert us, especially since there is a military conflict in our immediate neighborhood. On a conceptual level, we are heading towards a new kind of realism, where the premises of rational, constructive, positive-sum interaction between stakeholders who increasingly rely on soft power are being overhauled. This is why I think that we have to rediscover, once again, the pragmatism and relevance of analysis and forecast in geopolitics.
What I would emphasize however, is that in the modern sense of the term, geopolitics is no longer and can no longer be separated from the vision of the national interest – placed in the context of international developments, of course. Consequently, given the foreign policy profile that Romania has undertaken, geopolitical calculation remains closely linked to the fundamental choices we build our security interests on, namely the Euro-Atlantic shared values and identity. It is there that the natural space for our growth and development lies, it is where our allies are, our common-goal partners, with whom we generate a joint response to common threats, by virtue of the joint geostrategic nucleus of interests that we consistently opted for.
GeoPolitica magazine had the great privilege to release Your Excellency’s interventions on strategic topics. What do you think of the analyses we published so far? Do you have a message for our readers?
Bogdan AURESCU: Your publication already has a considerable tradition, in a highly specialized intellectual field. I especially appreciate the fact that you have always known how to attract some of the best-informed and most interesting specialists in this field.
According to the mission you have undertaken, GeoPolitica magazine is playing a role in creating a scientific framework for debate, which can show the difference between the particularities on the international system in the post-Cold War period, can forecast, through consistent academic and university activity, the evolution of all kinds of fields, such as international relations, geopolitics, geostrategy, ethnogeography, geo-economics.
Therefore, it has been and is a pleasure for us to be part of this exercise, both as a direct source of support in the realistic evaluation and projection of long-term trends in the international environment, and regarding the adaptation of Romania’s foreign policy objectives to these global developments.