Khaled Almaeena, a managing partner of Quartz, is a veteran Saudi journalist, commentator and businessman specialising in Saudi Arabia, Indo-Arab relations and U.S.-Arab relations. He currently serves as editor-at-large of the Saudi Gazette, and is a co-founder and board member of NAAM Association, which promotes cultural dialogue and supports civil-society organisations. He has held a broad range of positions in Saudi media for over thirty years. A frequent traveller to India, Almaeena broke new ground by establishing South Asian pages in Saudi newspapers. He discussed the prospects for U.S. president-elect Donald Trump in India and the Middle East with John C. Bersia, Co-Chair of The India Center at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida.
Q: What possibilities do you see for Trump’s administration in South Asia and the Middle East?
A: There are many possibilities, from the economic arena to peacemaking. In addition, opportunities beckon from the triangular relationship among India, the United States and Saudi Arabia. You don’t usually see these three countries in the same conversation, but it makes a lot of sense. Overall, my hope is that Trump will focus on cooperation and help initiate economic recovery among countries of the regions. He should also be an honest broker of peace.
Q: How was the U.S. presidential election viewed in Saudi Arabia and India?
A: In Saudi Arabia, the U.S. presidential campaign was viewed as a domestic issue, and most of the debates and presentations by candidates were about domestic matters. But that’s no reason to pay insufficient attention to American presidential elections. Let’s remember that what happens in America is of consequence worldwide. To paraphrase an old expression, when the United States sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. With the race over and Trump selected, it’s time to focus on what he brings to the discussion. He’s a known quantity and has been involved in the Middle East as a businessman. At the same time, he’s outspoken and will not mince words with the leadership in the area, which I welcome.
Q: And in India?
A: There is a perception among some Indians that he will be good for Indo-U.S. relations. In India, U.S. Democrats traditionally have been seen as favouring New Delhi, while U.S. Republicans have been seen as favouring Pakistan. Even though Trump is a Republican, he has an understanding of India, engages in business affairs there, and has made a concerted effort during the campaign to focus on that country and Indian-Americans.
Q: In the regions where Saudi Arabia and India are located – the Middle East and South Asia – what are the major challenges and opportunities for the incoming Trump administration?
A: Starting in the Middle East, Trump should reactivate the peace process – not to impose a solution but to encourage a settlement, including a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. The other subject on which Trump should focus is a continuation of the rapprochement with Iran. Although he has been critical of U.S. efforts to reach out to Iran, it’s important to emphasise how good that is for the region and the world. By engaging Iran, you reduce the influence of hardliners. In addition, let’s stop using the Middle East as a market for arms. By and large, people are tired of fighting. Nobody wants war. They would welcome America’s acting as a force for peace.
Q: And in South Asia?
A: America can and should play a more-forceful role in easing the tensions between India and Pakistan, especially regarding Kashmir. The upheaval in Kashmir is not about Hindus and Muslims. It’s about the desire of the population to live in dignity and peace, which requires removing the military forces that are there. It is very important to convince both India and Pakistan – despite a long history of mutual antagonism – that they need to talk and seek enduring solutions. Otherwise, they will never be able to deal with one of their worst problems, the grinding poverty that you see in so many places. I speak Hindi, so I move easily among the people in India. At times, I introduce myself as being from across the border to try to elicit heartfelt responses about India and Pakistan. I talked to an Indian farmer recently, and he said that tensions simply mean that foot soldiers die while the politicians’ children are safe in their respective counrties’ capitals. But, he said, they’re ignoring the real problem, the biggest problem, which is that the poor people are hungry. That’s the issue.
Q: What would you propose to help address peace-and-conflict issues in the Middle East and South Asia?
A: One idea that I would pitch to Trump is an international conference convened by the United States, along with other sponsors. Now, I understand that many Indians are suspicious of Saudi Arabia. They think we look at India through the Pakistan prism. That’s not really the case. Historically, there was a convenient closeness with Pakistan because we were both allies of the United States in dealing with challenges such as Afghanistan. And, yes, Saudi Arabia has welcomed military trainers from Pakistan, but it’s largely because they don’t speak Arabic. Saudi Arabia went to Pakistan because it wanted trainers who would not taint Saudi military personnel with disruptive ideas such as Ba’athism. Today, much has changed.
Q: Please elaborate.
A: The relationship between Saudi Arabia and India is mostly economic and healthy. There is great respect for India in Saudi Arabia, and it’s one of the top choices for Saudis considering foreign investments. Let me be very clear: We are not against India. Quite the opposite. We need to sit at the same table and have a dialogue, one encouraged – but not railroaded – by the United States.
Q: We’ve had some productive international gatherings of states in the past, such as the Madrid Conference in 1991. Partnerships were crucial to its success. Is a similar approach needed now?
A: Yes. The Madrid Conference, which was co-sponsored by the United States and the former Soviet Union, was a stepping stone to solutions. Nations came together and agreed to work toward collective remedies. They took action, and peace accords resulted. Even Syria was close to a settlement with Israel. For a conference now on the Middle East and South Asia, one might see the Chinese as a logical partner, even though China-India relations have always been topsy-turvy. Other countries would need to be brought in, as well. Japan would be an option, especially if its participation involved an aid package.
Q: What should be the overarching goals?
A: There can be no peace in the Middle East without an end to occupation and – as I said earlier – the establishment of a two-state solution. The United States should push for the enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. Another alternative is the King Abdullah Arab peace plan of 2002. As for South Asia, the first area of emphasis should be Kashmir, with the aim of reducing the military presence and creating peace and security with dignity for the people there. Trump would make a big contribution to world affairs – and specifically to South Asia and the Middle East – by proposing and organising, with partners, such a conference as one of his early initiatives.