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Opening speech by Anders Samuelsen from the MENA conference

05.02.2018  14:36


Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Let me first apologize for being delayed today. It was my intention to open the Conference this morning, but unfortunately my departure from Washington D.C. was postponed. During my visit to Washington I had the opportunity to meet with my US counterpart, foreign secretary Rex Tillersson. We exchanged views on several issues that are also highly relevant for todays’ conference such as the Syrian conflict, the Coalition against ISIS and the growing rivalry in the region. We agreed that we must remain engaged in the region and that there are many challenges to be handled. That is also why our conference today is very timely.

The MENA-region is subject to much analysis and we are not the first to try to wrap our heads around the many dilemmas. Just by looking at the more recent history, we can see how several complex dynamics have shaped the region. At the start of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, where the region was dominated by Europe. Afterwards, as the pan-Arabic movement and independence struggles took shape, the countries developed much of their national political heritage. And during the Cold War, the region was divided into Soviet and American client states. In recent years however, the dynamics have become more complex, with the gradual refocusing of American policy and the emergence of new actors and regional power structures.

The MENA-region has not yet settled into a stable regional order. The Arab Spring in 2011 is the latest example in a series of attempts to change the political landscape. Today we also see the re-emergence of Russia as a central actor in the region alongside a less obvious Chinese influence. Powerful non-state actors and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and ISIS continue to play a significant role and the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran further contributes to regional tensions. All these dynamics shape the complex picture that we are trying to analyze here today.

Our starting point today could be the following question: Why does Denmark need to be engaged? Why should Denmark risk getting entangled in such a complex and unsafe region?

[Reasons for Danish Engagement]

Well. Because we have to. I really don’t think we have a choice. Firstly, Denmark has a desire to assist the countries of the region in their development and we want to show solidarity with the courageous people who fight for justice, dignity and freedom. Secondly, as former general, David Patraeus once said “The Middle East is not part of the world that plays by Las Vegas rules: What happens in the Middle East is not going to stay in the Middle East”. In other words, our engagement is also a way of protecting our own security, welfare and values. As minister for foreign affairs, I strive to ensure our national security, enhance our national welfare and promote Danish values abroad. This is fundamentally, what our foreign policy is about.

A key aim of Danish foreign policy is to ensure Danish security. And the current situation in the region poses a direct threat. In Denmark, we have experienced first-hand how ISIS propaganda can motivate people to attack innocent civilians. At the same time, security challenges rising from unchecked migration have already taken too many lives on the Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere. These challenges often come from underlying demographic and socioeconomic developments, which underline the fact that our engagement in the region should tackle both the immediate security threats as well as the root causes.

Another central aspect of our foreign policy is the promotion of our values and norms to support the struggles for democracy and basic freedoms. Strengthening human rights, gender equality, freedom of speech and other essential values can help ensure that each individual is treated with dignity and contribute to social unity. This creates an alternative to radicalism, cross-border crime and illegal migration.

Lastly, Danish foreign policy aims to serve Danish welfare by securing trade and economic partnerships across the region. We have a direct interest in ensuring economic development in the region, where Danish business can engage freely and be agents of positive change. This also contributes to our own national welfare.

So the question is not if we should engage, but how. How does a small country like Denmark work to ensure these three priorities through our engagement in the MENA-region? We start with being realistic and acknowledging that we cannot be involved everywhere. We prioritize our interventions and we focus our policy. Let me highlight some of the tools we employ in our approach.

[Danish Engagement in the region]

Think of our foreign policy as a toolbox. Denmark’s engagement in the MENA-region makes use of several tools at the same time, ranging from direct military contributions to engagement with civil society organizations. I will not give you a complete list of the tools we have, but I will highlight a few to set out the frame for our engagement.

  1. Firstly, in our efforts to ensure our own security, one of our important engagements has been our contribution to the Global Coalition against ISIS. As a testament to the importance of the fight against ISIS, Denmark remains one of the largest troop contributors per capita to the Coalition. We also have a clear understanding that peace is rarely created through the barrel of a gun. That is why our substantial military support goes hand in hand with other policy tools such as our wider stabilization, countering violent extremism and humanitarian efforts in the region. In this regard, Denmark recently granted an additional 20 million kroner to the Syria Recovery Trust Fund as well as 15 million kroner to the UN efforts towards security sector reform and reconciliation in Iraq. We also contribute to EU efforts to promote opportunities in host countries and tackle regional migration challenges such as the EU’s Trust Fund for Africa. In this regard, the situation in Libya poses a critical challenge to Denmark and the EU.
  2. Secondly, the Danish Trade Council leads our efforts to promote Danish welfare through increased commercial relations in the region. We aim to match the competences of Danish business with the demand for new solutions in the region. The development in oil prices has pushed many of the regional economies towards restructuring of their energy sectors. Denmark has a lot to offer in this field. Our competences in other important fields such as health care, food production, and urban planning, can also remove some of the heavier burdens on the public budgets in the region. This is to the benefit of the region as well as Denmark. Promotion of a liberal and rules-based trading system through multilateral efforts has been at the top of my foreign policy agenda. Free trade is also key in fighting poverty and radicalization.
  3. Thirdly, The EU is an important part of our efforts to promote human rights and democratic freedoms. Through the EU, we speak with a louder voice in the region when it comes to protecting liberal values and fundamental freedoms. Let me be frank: This can sometimes be a difficult balancing act, as the EU has strong interests in the region. But I can assure you that in this debate, Denmark will always stand on the side of fundamental freedoms. This also goes hand in hand with our candidacy to the Human Rights Council from 2019 to 2021
  4. Lastly, the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme, has been a cornerstone in Denmark’s bilateral engagement with large parts of the region. DAPP aims to promote good governance and ensure economic opportunities. Our efforts range from creating employment opportunities for youth to promoting human rights. The new phase of the programme has a special focus on young people in the region. I had the pleasure of discussing young people's challenges in the region with four young Moroccans when I visited the country in September last year. It is clear to me that if we want to address the long-term challenges in the MENA-region we need to create economic opportunities and democratic participation for the next generation.


In conclusion: Even if we have limited influence, I believe that Denmark is playing a positive role in the region and that our engagement is contributing to promoting values and policies that will benefit the people of the region. At the same time, we should not be blind to the fact that the region faces significant challenges. The conflict in Syria seems as unsolvable as ever. The regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia continues to undermine the stability in the region and the increased power of non-state actors poses serious challenges. The Middle East Peace Process remains a distinct and unresolved issue that influences the entire region.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the power politics of the region keep changing. Even if we figure out how to best engage with the region today, this reality might have changed tomorrow. I hope our conference today will be able to improve our understanding not just of the current realities, but also of future realities.

I want to thank you all for coming, I hope you leave the conference both inspired and enlightened.

Thank you.