Speech by Deputy Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee Dialogue on the Middle East : “A deeper understanding of the Middle East, the importance of its historical make-over and the geopolitical relations between countries of the region”, 23 – 24 July 2013

Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

I am particularly grateful to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on International Relations and Cooperation and the Afro-Middle East Centre for bringing us together today to reflect on the relations South Africa has with the Middle East and North Africa Region.

Next year will mark South Africa’s twentieth year as a democracy. These past twenty years have seen South Africa and many countries of the world rekindle relations – relations that were practically non-existent due to our history of apartheid. None more so than the countries within the MENA region which have been actively working together with South Africa to build stronger political- and economic relations. It might be of interest to mention that in 1994, South Africa had seven operational diplomatic missions in the MENA region (i.e. Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Qatar and Tunisia). Today, South Africa’s representation in the region has reached twenty diplomatic offices in eighteen countries - a clear indication of the importance South Africa affords to its relations with the countries in MENA.

In understanding the region, one has to concede that the majority of Arabs live in the African continent and the majority of Arab League members are Africans. Accordingly, our engagement of the MENA region must of necessity be Africa-centred.

The South African government defines the national interest as, “those interests of the state, which can be categorized as core interests, which are inalienable, and whose attainment and protection is absolutely vital.”

In addition to our top priority of supporting Government’s domestic programmes to create a better life for all, this national interest is also underpinned by the following principles:

  • A commitment to the promotion of human rights;

  • A commitment to the promotion of democracy;

  • A commitment to justice and international law in the conduct of relations between nations;

  • A commitment to international peace and to internationally agreed upon mechanisms for the resolutions of conflicts;

  • A commitment to promote the African agenda in world affairs; and

  • A commitment to economic development through regional and international cooperation in an inter-dependent world.

The practical expression of these principles lies in affording people an opportunity to determine for themselves who should lead them and govern on their behalf.

Ladies and Gentlemen

One cannot adequately expand on Africa’s relations with the Middle East without referring to the commonalities that bind the two regions.  Firstly, both regions are at the center of the world’s trading belt and represent the largest chunk of exploitable wealth on earth with such lucrative products as spices, fish, gems, oil, gas, uranium and gold. Secondly, both regions hold over half of the world’s oil reserves – i.e. approximately 925 billion barrels of a world total of 1,653 billion barrels in 2011; and thirdly, the Middle East is the birthplace of three of the world’s principal religions, namely, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three religions have a significant number of adherents in South Africa.

A further commonality lies in South Africa’s own historic struggle for liberation. In this instance, we identify with the struggle of the Palestinian and Saharawi peoples for self-determination and we unequivocally support their causes.

South Africa’s interest in the MENA Region is built on two tenets, namely, the economic development of our country and the promotion of peace and security in the region. Integrated trade and investment may have been our initial point of contact post-1994, but our twenty years of relations have brought about a myriad of different areas of cooperation such as Science and Technology, Education, Health, Transport and Defence. Today I am proud to say that this list is growing.

Our engagement not only ensures optimal relations between South Africa and the Middle East, but also contributes to the attainment of South Africa’s national objectives such as job creation through trade, investment and tourism promotion, and transfer of technologies and skills both to South Africa and the rest of the African continent. In this sense, South Africa is committed to engage with its partners in the Middle East and North Africa to unlock further opportunities.

International trade is a critical factor for South Africa’s continued growth and development. The 2008 global financial crisis, and the subsequent collapse of some western economies, emphasised the importance of diversifying international trade sources. This is particularly important against the background of the seemingly continuing shift of economic power from the North to the South and from West to East. All this suggests that while South Africa’s economic links with the countries of the North remain critical, future prospects for growth and international trade require rapid and extensive expansion of trade with the MENA countries.

Another reason the MENA region is important to South Africa is that it is home to sizeable South African expatriate communities. There are about 130 South African companies operating in the construction, engineering, retail and hospitality industries in the United Arab Emirates. A company that merits special mention in this context is the construction giant Murray and Roberts which has been present in Dubai for decades and is closely associated with the construction of the prestigious Chicago Beach Tower, Dubai International Airport's Concourse 1 and the iconic, sail-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel. Other areas of strategic co-operation include telecommunications such as MTN’s involvement in Iran and Syria; and energy, such as SASOL in Iran and Qatar.

In January 2007, Cabinet took a decision that South Africa needed to make a concerted effort to access increased Foreign Direct Investment from the oil-rich Gulf States and, for this purpose, a strategy to attract such investments was developed. The global financial crisis necessitated a review by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, in consultation with the Department of Trade and Industry, of this strategy. It is estimated that the Gulf States have a total Sovereign Wealth Funds accumulation in excess of US $ 1.3 trillion.

The Gulf region in particular is vital to South Africa’s energy security which forms the lifeblood of the South African economy. Accounting for about 66% of OPEC’s oil reserves, the sheer size of the Middle East’s proven oil reserves ensures that it will continue to be a major player in the global oil trade so long as there is demand. In 2012 alone, South Africa imported R60 billion worth of crude oil from Saudi Arabia - the country with 17% of the world’s total proven oil reserves.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In terms of peace and security, South Africa remains committed to sharing our experiences and capabilities to make a contribution to the promotion of world peace, the elimination of Weapons of Mass Destruction and promotion of human rights. It goes without saying that the MENA region has witnessed an unprecedented amount of conflict, both past and present. One of the longest-standing obstacles to peace in the Middle East is the question concerning the search for an independent Palestinian State. Since the founding of a democratic and non-racial South Africa in 1994, South Africa has strongly supported the establishment of a viable Palestinian State, and the peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the same time, South Africa maintains normal, but restricted, diplomatic ties with Israel, taking the view that Israel’s long-term security requires the ending of its occupation of all Arab territories.

In the past few years, however, the continuation of the building of settlements in occupied territory has been indicative of Israel’s reluctance and intransigence to adhere to internationally agreed upon resolutions for the creation of a Palestinian State based on the 1967 borders. South Africa has strongly condemned the building of settlements within Palestinian territories within international fora such as the United Nations and South Africa continues to support the Palestinian people through our contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

South Africa also supports the Saharawi Peoples inalienable right to decolonization and self-determination, through a UN supervised referendum with the option of Independence. The Personal Envoy of the United Nations’ Secretary-General, Ambassador Christopher Ross has expressed his concern that neither of the two parties to the conflict, Morocco and the Polisario Front, has been willing to accept each other’s proposal. In light of this stalemate, Ambassador Ross cautioned that the environment around the conflict has changed with the advent of the Arab Spring and that the deteriorating security situation in the Maghreb and Sahel has dire consequences for the region. Against this background, the continued non-resolution of the conflict might remain the cause for disunity on the African continent. 

I want to add that the human rights situation in the Western Sahara occupied territories continues to deteriorate. A case worth noting in this respect was the sentencing of the 25 Saharawi human rights activists earlier this year by a Moroccan military court following 27 months of detention. These violations have strengthened the call on the United Nations to incorporate a human rights monitoring component in the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO). In this instance the United States has also lent its voice to this proposal.

Nearly three years ago we witnessed the birth of a political movement for change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. This phenomenon, which caught the world by surprise, has been dubbed by the mainstream media and analysts alike as the ‘Arab Spring’, the ‘Arab Awakening’ and or even the ‘Arab Revolution’. Time will tell whether the events in the Arab world will yield revolutionary transformation in these societies as we know them or if the oppressive state apparatus will remain intact and presided over by different people.

The South African government has noted with satisfaction the holding of peaceful democratic elections in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, following a difficult transitional period in these countries. The challenge facing these countries is the drafting of new constitutions and addressing the socio-economic concerns of their respective populations. South Africa offered and remains ready to support these countries in their attempts to make democratic transformations by sharing its own experiences. There has been a series of high level exchange of visits to and from these countries with South Africa sharing its own experiences in post conflict reconstruction and development, transitional justice, national reconciliation and constitution building processes.

The political climate in Egypt remains volatile and uncertain. The ousting of President Morsy and the internment of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has the potential to unleash violent backlash from its supporters, considering that the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys the support from one-third of the Egyptian population.

Prevailing events in Egypt suggest that the country may be gradually gravitating to the brink of possible civil war if not contained. On 8 July 2013 the Egyptian security forces opened fire on unarmed Muslim Brotherhood protesters that left 42 people dead and close to 300 wounded. Sections of the Muslim Brotherhood have since called for a national uprising throughout Egypt.

Given that Morsy was democratically elected before he was abruptly removed by the military, the supporters of Muslim Brotherhood are likely to approach their counter-protests as legitimate. Potential violent conflict in Egypt will not only destabilise the country but may have far reaching political and security implications for an already volatile Middle East and North Africa region.

In my view, the marginalization of the Muslim Brotherhood in the post-Morsy dispensation will do little to unite an already polarized Egyptian society. Moreover, given its well established underground networks during its period of illegality, the purging of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and its alienation in the unfolding political transition may force it to resume operating clandestinely once gain.

Against this backdrop, it can be argued that Egypt’s current political crisis is far reaching and cannot solely be attributed to the mistakes committed by President Morsy.

Turning to the dire situation in Syria, which has been raging for more than two years, South Africa deplores the violence and massacres of civilians. 

The levels of violence by both sides, especially the use of heavy weapons and aircraft in attacking civilian populated areas, are unacceptable. The conflict threatens to engulf the country in a protracted civil war that could destabilize the region as a whole.

Our Government has made it clear in the United National Security Council and elsewhere that it opposes all forms of external intervention aimed at regime change in Syria, such as occurred in Libya. The history of the region has shown that external intervention by foreign military powers not only leads to the escalation of conflicts but also makes for more protracted and violent wars with enormous humanitarian costs.

During 2011, South Africa agreed on a joint approach with IBSA partners, Brazil and India, then fellow non-permanent United Nations Security Council members, to convey to the Syrian authorities the concerns of South Africa, India and Brazil that the conflict in Syria is spiraling out of control and for the urgent need for a ceasing of all hostilities and for a process of inclusive dialogue with all the parties concerned. During its tenure as a non-Permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, South Africa played an active role in trying to push the Council towards living up to its responsibilities to the people of Syria. 

South Africa cannot agree with the precondition that negotiations are not possible until President Assad steps down. As Nelson Mandela reminded us: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”  Even though the South African conflict stretched over a much longer period and the United Nations declared the apartheid system a crime against humanity, representatives of the regime were not excluded from the negotiations that led to a democratic settlement in South Africa.

In a complex, divided society such as Syria, there can be no military solution to the conflict and the increased supply of weapons to the Syrian Government and opposition forces have entrenched the false notion that a military solution is possible. If this continues it is ultimately the people of Syria who will pay the price, whilst those supplying weapons live in safety far away from the crisis.

The only hope for the Syrian people lies in the willingness of all the parties to the conflict to immediately put an end to the violence and start engaging each other constructively with the aim of reaching an agreement on a political transition based on the Geneva Communiqué of June 2012. 

South Africa believes that democracy is an unassailable right of the Syrian people. The South African Government is thus committed to encouraging all parties involved in the current conflict in Syria to engage in a process of all-inclusive national dialogue, free of any form of violence, intimidation or outside interference aimed at regime change, in order to satisfy the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.  South Africa will continue to promote this approach within the important groupings of BRICS and IBSA.

In terms of Iran, there was a concern that a lack of compliance by Iran with international demands to halt its nuclear enrichment programme could result in a United States or even an Israeli military strike on Iran. South Africa believes in Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but we continue to encourage international efforts to achieve a solution satisfactory to the United Nations (Permanent 5+1), the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran. These efforts include ongoing engagement with the Iranian authorities on confidence building measures regarding international fears about a suspected Iranian nuclear weapons programme. 

Ladies and Gentlemen

The MENA region has experienced a dramatic and tumultuous wave of change in recent years which necessitates a foreign policy that is coherent and adaptable to these dynamic and volatile circumstances.

In 2013, the South African Government intends beginning work on a policy document dealing with a changed Middle East and how South Africa should deal with the region at present but also in five and ten years from now. The policy document will include advice on how to engage with the Middle East in less than stable conditions, strategies to deal with the emerging leadership of the region, the current efforts by regional actors to project power in the region as well as analysing the policies of international actors and how it influences the Middle East region.  Whilst the Department of International Relations and Cooperation will take the lead in the formulation of the policy document, it will also include participation by all relevant Government departments and civil society stakeholders.

I trust that our deliberations on these matters at this seminar and indeed other issues relating to this important region will provide clarity on how South Africa should respond to these developments. Most importantly though, at the end of our discussions, our strategy should be one that positions South Africa to benefit politically and economically from the new political space that has opened-up.

I thank you





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