Austria partners with Kingdom and Spain to further religious dialogue

November 25, 2012 | Ghazanfar Ali Khan

Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Austrian Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Michal Spindelegger and Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo will launch the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna on Monday.
“The opening ceremony of the KAICIID will be attended by hundreds of other eminent religious, civic and political leaders from around the world,” Austrian Ambassador Gregor W. Koessler, said yesterday in an exclusive interview with Ghazanfar Ali Khan of Arab News.
Koessler said the KAICIID, an initiative of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, will act as a hub among followers of different religions and cultures, empowering others already working in the field of dialogue and promoting harmony and cooperation.
“The center will generate, develop and disseminate knowledge in the area of interreligious and intercultural dialogue,” said Koessler.
Top foreign dignitaries and religious figures, including Vice Foreign Minister Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Saleh bin Abdulaziz Asheikh and Abdullah A. Al-Turki, chief of the Muslim World League (MWL) will also participate in the opening ceremony in Vienna.
The Austrian envoy said the center traces its origins to the initiative of King Abdullah and has three founder states: Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain. The Holy See has welcomed the invitation to adhere to the initiative in the quality of founding observer. A delegation of the Holy See will be present at the inauguration ceremony.
He said the center is a new institution, the purpose of which is to foster dialogue among religions and cultures. This goal is always to be looked on with favor with a view to understanding and peaceful coexistence among peoples: a basic and an urgent need for the humanity of today and tomorrow. In fact, King Abdullah spoke to the Vatican priests about the need for such a center during the meeting he had in the Vatican in 2007.
The center will enable, empower and encourage dialogue among followers of different religions and cultures around the world. Located in Vienna, a city long used to being a bridgehead between world religions and cultures, the center is an independent, international organization, free of political or economic influence. The three founding states of the center constitute the “Council of Parties” responsible for overseeing the establishment of the center.

The text of the interview:

Please share with me the details of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) that has been established in Vienna by Saudi Arabia in cooperation with Austria and Spain. What is your comment on the center in the capacity of the Austrian ambassador to Saudi Arabia?
The King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) is based on an initiative by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah and will be officially opened in Vienna on (Monday). The center is due to be opened by Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Austrian Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger and Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo, representing the founding states of the center. We expect a large delegation from Saudi Arabia, including many dignitaries from the political, religious and academic fields. We also have indications that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will personally be present at the event.
The center’s mission is defined as “acting as a hub, facilitating interreligious and intercultural dialogue and understanding, to enhance cooperation, respect for diversity, justice and peace. The center has a prominent leadership with Secretary-General Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaammar from Saudi Arabia and Deputy Secretary-General Claudia Bandion-Ortner, former Austrian minister of justice. The KAICIID Board of Directors comprises nine personalities from the major world religions. It is therefore very well-suited to develop the authority to have a real impact on the discourse in this field.
To me, as the Austrian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the center provides all of us with a great opportunity to address one of the burning questions of our time: how can we cultivate our differences in such a way that we are not threatened by the otherness of different cultures but instead be enriched by them. The center is a challenge: A) to ourselves — are we tolerant enough to approach the position of the others but also B) to those who abuse the ignorance about the richness of religion to ignite violence.

How do your comment on the role of Saudi leadership and the resolve of two partner countries — Austria and Spain — in terms of launching such an initiative that calls for dialogue among all major religions of the world?
The initiative of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah is highly commendable. The initiative seeks to promote greater understanding, social cohesion, conflict prevention and above all lasting peace, which is the need of the hour. Peace is the most essential component of human existence that need to be ensured in the world today. The opening ceremony of the center will be attended by a gathering of some 600 eminent religious, civic and political leaders from around the world. In fact, the KAICIID was founded to enable, empower and encourage dialogue among followers of different religions and cultures around the world.
The founding states of the center constitute the “Council of Parties” responsible for overseeing the establishment of the center.

What is the strategy adopted by Austria in its relationship with the Kingdom in particular and with other states in the region in general?
Austria is very well aware of the Kingdom’s crucial role in the Gulf region and far beyond. Intensified regional cooperation through the GCC, which Saudi Arabia is fostering in its neighborhood, is familiar to us as Austria is an active European Union member state — which is all about developing effective ways of growing together without losing the important differences. Austria is equally engaged in improving economic and political stability in southeastern Europe and the Black Sea region.
Apart from important economic and security questions, we also see Saudi Arabia, as the home country of Islam’s most important holy sites, carry great responsibility in the Islamic world for supporting dialogue and increasing mutual understanding on our planet.

How do you evaluate relations between Austria and Saudi Arabia on political, commercial and cultural fronts?
Austria and Saudi Arabia are looking back on longstanding and friendly diplomatic relations, which have allowed for the development of a large variety of links between our two countries. To me, it seems that the most important aspect in our relationship is mutual respect for each other as well as a true interest of Austria in your country (Saudi Arabia). On this basis, our political and economic ties have grown naturally for more than half a century to our mutual benefit.
Austria is not only a seat country of the United Nations. Vienna, the Austrian capital, also hosts OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) — of which the Kingdom is a founding member — since 1965. But certainly, the most significant new development in our relations is the fact that our capital Vienna has been chosen to host the new King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. We are very proud and grateful that this new hub for dialogue is going to operate from Vienna, as we also see it as a reflection of trust in Austria’s genuine effort to foster peace and stability not only in our European neighborhood but also in the Middle East.

On the commercial front, I would like to know the current status of the two-way trade and investment relations. What is the total value of two-way trade?
Saudi Arabia is Austria’s most important trading partner in the entire region. In 2011, the total trade volume between Austria and Saudi Arabia exceeded 1 billion euros for the first time in history. In 2012, it is expected to reach at least 1 billion euros again.
I think it is important to underline that Austrian export figures to Saudi Arabia are not dependent just on a few large-scale projects, but also embrace a broad range of goods and services. Altogether, Austrian exports to the Kingdom have been rising by 74 percent since 2005 whereas imports to Austria have been growing over the same period of time by 50 percent. Austrian exports include iron and steel products, industrial goods, machinery and equipment as well as high-quality food products such as fruit juices or energy drinks.

Which are the specific areas of cooperation or potential areas of commercial cooperation that can be exploited by the two countries?
Despite the flourishing economic relations between our two countries there is still room for improvement in different areas such as construction and infrastructure, traffic and transport, environmental and alternative energy technology as well as in the health care segment. Last but not the least, there is greater scope to boost investment relations. Austria offers great incentives to foreign investors and greater safeguards for foreign investment.

Is there any plan of any Austrian official or delegation to visit the Kingdom in the near future?
We are working on a high-level political visit from Austria to Saudi Arabia in spring next year. Vice Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah visited Vienna for working meetings less than two weeks ago, and we are looking forward to a major Saudi delegation on the occasion of the opening of the King Abdullah Dialogue center, as I mentioned earlier.
In the commercial context, regular Austrian business missions have been visiting Saudi Arabia. These missions are organized by our Commercial Counselor Pierre Prunis. There is a good basis for business contacts in a variety of sectors, from several areas of technology to high-quality food, from construction to fire trucks and water treatment. The next business mission of this type is planned for February.

What is your perception of the economic situation of Austria at the moment, keeping in view the fact that the US economy is showing no signs of recovery and a large number of countries around the world are facing recession?
Austria has solid economic fundamentals and our government has taken austerity measures to reduce deficit spending already for several years. At the same time, Austria enjoys a very low unemployment rate (on average unemployment is at 4 percent) and domestic private consumption remains at high levels. In total, we are of course affected as are all eurozone countries but our flexible economic structure with many SMEs has helped Austria to walk through this difficult phase relatively well so far.

What is the Austrian position on Yemen?
Austria recognizes and appreciates the successful stabilization in Yemen under the leadership of President Hadi who I had the pleasure to meet in Sanaa in early October this year. We are well aware of the delicate task to bring the political factors in the country together in order to agree on the decisive elections in early 2014. Austria fully supports the international efforts in supporting the Yemeni government in their endeavor to provide a new framework for economic recovery, political stability and the fight against terrorism. Austria appreciates the significant contribution made by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to helping the Yemeni government to achieve this crucial task which is important for the whole region. On other issues, Austria supports the stand of the EU.

Austria ranks 12th with over 21 million tourists visiting your country. What is the total number of Saudi nationals, who visited Austria in 2010, 2011, and during the first nine months of 2012?
For decades, Austria has been an extremely popular destination for Saudi tourists. This trend became more pronounced over the past couple of years. Let me provide you with some figures. While in 2011 the Austrian National Tourist Agency counted 129,000 Saudi overnight guests, we witnessed some 198,000 Saudi overnight stays in Austria in the first nine months of 2012. This corresponds to an increase of 69 percent. According to the statistics of the Austrian National Tourist Agency, Saudi Arabia therefore tops this year’s increase of incoming tourism to Austria worldwide.
Saudis appear to be attracted to travel to our country not only because of its fabulous landscape and rich cultural heritage but also family oriented hotels and restaurants that adapt to Saudi customs. Vienna, Salzburg and a few other tourist sites are “famous” among Saudis. We will do our best to remain attractive to Saudis who should feel at home always in our country.

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Ghazanfar Ali Khan