Austria's Schallenberg Visits Saudi Arabia: Exchange on Middle East Conflict and Economic cooperation

PeopleDiplomats ♦ Published: May 23, 2024; 23:59 ♦ (Vindobona)

Austria's Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg visited Saudi Arabia as part of his latest visit to the Middle East and met with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan. The talks focused on the Middle East conflict and the intensification of economic relations between the two countries.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg (l.) met the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud (r.) in Riyadh. / Picture: © BMEIA Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äußeres / Michael Gruber / Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Austria's Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg sees a normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel as the "biggest game changer in the region". He made this assessment at a press briefing in Riyadh, where he met with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. However, Riyadh's economic interests are the main reason behind the diplomatic efforts.

As an influential nation, Saudi Arabia plays a decisive role in the region, according to the Austrian MFA. Foreign Minister Schallenberg emphasized the importance of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East conflict and praised its level-headed voice. "This influence is essential to stabilize the situation in the Middle East conflict in the short term and normalize relations between Israel and the Arab states in the long term," explained Schallenberg. He emphasized the need for continuous dialogue to find sustainable solutions.

In an exchange with Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Schallenberg reaffirmed the common goal of humanitarian aid for Gaza and the unconditional release of the Israeli hostages. The situation in the Gaza Strip remains devastating after more than seven months of war. Hunger, despair and faltering negotiations characterize the picture. More than 900,000 people are on the run, while the Israeli army has stepped up its offensive on Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip. On Friday, the International Court of Justice will rule on an application by South Africa to halt the Israeli military offensive.

Negotiations on a ceasefire and the release of over 100 hostages kidnapped by Hamas are progressing slowly. Although Israel's war cabinet has continued its efforts to secure the release of the abductees, Egypt is threatening to withdraw from the peace efforts as a mediator.

In the long term, Prince Faisal bin Farhan and Schallenberg agreed that a two-state solution was the only way to achieve lasting peace. "We are united by the goal of a sustainable two-state solution. It is the only conceivable path to lasting peace. Because neither Israelis nor Palestinians will vanish into thin air. In this endeavor, Saudi Arabia's voice of reason as a leading nation in the Arab world is indispensable," emphasized Schallenberg.

Saudi Arabia is primarily seeking Western, above all U.S., security guarantees and better access to U.S. and European technology. Particularly concerning Iran's arms efforts, Riyadh is hoping for support from Washington in the development of a civilian nuclear program, including uranium enrichment, and partly from Europe for the Sauid navy.

Economic Cooperation and Vision 2030

In addition to the Middle East conflict, the expansion of economic relations was a key topic. Schallenberg met with the Saudi Minister of Economy and Planning, Faisal bin Fadhil Alibrahim. Trade relations between Austria and Saudi Arabia have developed positively: The volume of trade reached 980 million euros last year. Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, which is aimed at the economic and social development of the country, offers further opportunities for cooperation in the fields of renewable energies, green technologies, and tourism.

However, Saudi Arabia's interest in regional stability is primarily based on economic considerations. The ambitious "Vision 2030", the core of which is the "Neom" construction project with the CO2-neutral and car-free city "The Line", is intended to be an economic success. Despite scaled-back plans and accusations of human rights violations, the vision remains a key goal for Riyadh.

Schallenberg emphasized that the situation in Yemen and the Gaza Strip is "pure poison" for Saudi Arabia's stability efforts. There were no press statements after his meeting with Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud on Thursday.

Schallenberg's visit to Saudi Arabia underlines the importance of bilateral relations and the desire to tackle common challenges through dialog and cooperation.

Austrian MFA