Norway's engagement in the Middle East

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anniken Huitfeldt's, speech at the University of Oslo on Norway's engagement in the Middle East.

Good afternoon, everyone,

I have learned a great deal in the lecture rooms in this building. And gained inspiration and new perspectives.

Today, I am going to talk about Norway’s engagement in the Middle East. About the overall direction, the common themes, what we are doing and how we use our resources.

My main message, summed up, is:

Firstly, that the Middle East and North Africa region is part of our broader neighbourhood. Not just in geographical terms.

Secondly, that it is in Norway’s interests to seek to strengthen vulnerable states, promote stability, find political solutions to conflicts, prevent situations that create flows of refugees, combat radicalisation and generate opportunities for investment.

That is why we need insight into the region. And why the course of study you have chosen is so relevant.

I have been looking through past exam questions for the MØNA1000 course, which also has the title ‘The Middle East: Permanent crisis?’ – with a question mark.

I think perhaps my answer would have been ‘yes’ (or ‘well yes and no’). We tend to think that the Middle East is always dealing with chronic problems, and constantly experiencing turmoil, conflict, war.

But ‘permanent crisis’ is a negatively loaded phrase. And it should not be the dominant theme in a rewarding course on an important part of the world with a fascinating history.  

It is interesting to see how much the previous exam questions have focused on historical events. History is vital, of course – not least in foreign policy – to understand what is happening today, who the various actors are, the conflict lines. To try to be prepared for what could happen tomorrow.

The same key topics crop up again and again in the exam questions: 1916 and the Sykes-Picot Agreement; 1967 and the Six-Day War; 1979 and the Iranian Revolution; 1993 and the Oslo Accords; 2011 and the Arab Spring. These events and dates also form the backdrop for my speech today.

Because dates conjure up images. Just as in our European history. Berlin 1945 and 1989. And now, Ukraine, 24 February 2022 – Russia’s invasion. A war that is destroying lives and has shaken the world to its core. This date will be remembered for a long time.  

When we travel in the Middle East, we are surrounded by history and stories of the past. Just before Easter, I made two short trips to Israel, Palestine and Egypt. My conversations with many of the people I meet on such trips have historical perspectives as their starting point.

I visited Jerusalem, where three of the world’s religions meet, geographically, historically and culturally. It always makes me think back to the Crusades, a controversial part of our own medieval history, to put it mildly. The conflict between Christians and Muslims raged for centuries. In passing, I could mention a book that made a deep impression on me: Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography (2012).

This year saw a convergence of the Christian holiday of Easter, the Jewish holiday of Passover, and the Muslim holiday of Ramadan culminating in Eid al-Fitr. Millions of people across the world, following centuries of their traditions, shared a period of reflection, fellowship and hope.

But once again, we saw unrest and clashes at the holy sites in Jerusalem.

Religion can bring people together. It can also put up barriers between people. That is, the exercise of religion – people – can do both these things.  

It can include or exclude. It can foster reconciliation or incite conflict.

Some of the bloodiest conflicts are those where the parties claim to have the kingdom of God on their side. There is little worse than a massacre carried out by attackers who have chosen their victims because of their faith.

We need records, books, memorials and remembrance centres like Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, because there are fewer and fewer eyewitnesses left. Because there are still countries that have not confronted the Holocaust.

Today, there is growing interest in the Holocaust among students and researchers. This is important. According to surveys carried out by the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies, the percentage of the Norwegian population exhibiting negative attitudes towards Jews fell from 12.1 % to 8.3 % in the period 2011–2017. This is a positive development. At the same time, the surveys have shown that negative attitudes towards Muslims are widespread – exhibited by as much as 27 % of the population. And that antisemitism and Islamophobia are closely related and linked to xenophobic attitudes. Clearly, there is a need for our action plans to combat antisemitism, anti-Muslim discrimination and hatred, and hate speech.

I do not believe that one religion is any more extreme – or discriminatory – in its practice than another. I firmly believe that diversity is essential in modern Norway. And that religious diversity enriches Norwegian culture and society and our national identity.

Every nation must constantly renew itself. Our understanding of what constitutes Norwegian society must be constantly expanded.

This week, the actor and writer Imam Meskini, known among other things for her role in the Norwegian television series Skam, was included in the Forbes’ European 30 under 30 list, in the social impact category.

And it seems as if everyone, whatever their religion or faith, now sings along to Karpe’s ‘Allah, Allah, ya baba’. But I digress.


Why is the Middle East and North Africa region important for Norway?

Because it is Europe’s southern neighbourhood. Our neighbour. Geographically, historically, politically, economically and culturally. That is why we need people with knowledge of the region.

We can make a difference in many ways:

  • by providing support for sustainable growth and development, and health and education.
  • by promoting human rights and gender equality.
  • by helping internally displaced people, and working to stabilise countries affected by conflict and fragility.
  • by taking steps to enhance security – for example in the Gulf.
  • by developing strategies to find political solutions to conflicts.
  • by providing advice to Norwegian companies – not least on issues relating to the green transition.  

The Government’s political platform states that the ‘aim of Norwegian foreign policy is to safeguard Norwegian interests, security and values in a world that has become more unstable and unpredictable.’

That we will ‘give priority to addressing the climate change threat […], facilitating good trade relations, reducing global inequality and enhancing global food security.’ 

We have ambitious goals in all these areas: security, climate action, food, trade, the fight against inequality.

People’s living conditions. Foreign policy must ultimately be about ordinary people.

Our task is to safeguard and promote Norwegian interests abroad. Including interests that Norway shares with other countries.

Such as security, sovereignty, respect for international law, human rights, rules for trade in goods and services, sustainable development, decent working conditions. And many more.

And in the context of Norway’s Middle East policy, this means, for example that:

  • It is in our interests to help to resolve conflicts in the Middle East, build more stable states that people are not forced to flee from. As in Yemen.
  • It is in our interests to combat radicalisation, to prevent extremism and violence from posing a threat to the local population or those of us who are further away. As in Syria.
  • It is in our interests to advance the green transition, to combat climate change and promote sustainable growth. As in Morocco.
  • It is in our interests to support Norwegian companies and help them to gain a foothold in the major markets. As in Egypt.

In our foreign policy – and our Middle East policy – we talk not only about interests, but also about values.

Such as democracy and the rule of law.

Norway regularly raises reports of torture and executions in its contact with the authorities in certain countries in the Middle East. Because all countries have human rights obligations. All countries have ratified at least one of the core international human rights conventions. Including Iran and Saudi Arabia.

For example, when I was in Cairo, I brought up the human rights situation. I mentioned some positive developments, in particular relating to economic and social rights. But I also raised the issue of the death penalty. We agreed to have an open dialogue, particularly with regard to Egypt’s efforts to follow up its new human rights strategy.

In my talks with the authorities in the region, I always raise the issue of human rights, where necessary. In particular, women’s rights and workers’ rights.

I do not publicise such talks in the media beforehand. In my experience, concerns and criticism are received more constructively – and that is, after all, the point here – when these messages are not conveyed through megaphone diplomacy, to put it one way.   

There are times when dialogue is not possible, such as in the current extraordinary situation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But in general, I don’t believe in closing doors, cutting contact, ceasing dialogue. As a rule, I believe in communication. Not just for the sake of dialogue itself, but in order to convey our message to the authorities on the other side of the table, to communicate how important it is to comply with international obligations, such as human rights obligations.  

Solidarity is another core value.

As we wrote in the Government’s political platform: ‘It is an expression of solidarity and in Norway’s interests to work to promote a fairer world in which fewer people live in unfree societies and in need.’

This is a guiding principle for me, and for our engagement in the Middle East. Promoting a fairer world. 


But what is meant by the ‘Middle East’? The term ‘Middle East’ is relatively new. And reflects a world seen through European eyes.

A total of 20 countries and areas, 450 million inhabitants. A far from homogenous region, in much the same way as Europe.

With different factions, tribes, clans, powerful families, religious affiliations, political parties. Coalitions are often fragile.

Most are part of the Arab community. The prayers and religious festivals of Islam serve as a clock and calendar for these nations.

Huge disparities. Per capita GDP is up to ten times higher in the oil- and gas-rich countries in the Gulf than in the other countries.

Strategic location. Throughout history, rulers have sought to invade the region, to gain control of the trading routes.

These countries are bridgeheads and hubs at the crossroads between east and west, north and south. The Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf. Gibraltar, Suez and Hormoz. Names that evoke waterways that connect and conflicts that divide.

Bear in mind that 90 % of all the world’s goods are transported by sea. And that Norway is the world’s fourth largest shipping nation, measured in terms of value.


What geopolitical developments are affecting the Middle East and North Africa?

Let me focus on four points:

First – the impacts of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

Russia has been seeking to increase its influence in the Middle East over a long period. Just think of Syria.

The repercussions of the war in Ukraine could be significant. Russia’s military and political footprint in the Middle East will be affected. Its reputation may be undermined. But not in all countries.

The war appears to be having a polarising effect. The countries have been wary of condemning Russia. They are subject to conflicting pressures. Trying to remain neutral.

A number of the countries have established strategic defence cooperation with Moscow. And Russia plays a leading role in the powerful OPEC+ group. 

A decline in the world economy will have particularly severe ramifications for the Middle East and Africa. With a dramatic increase in prices for grain and other foodstuffs.

We could be facing a global food crisis. Lebanon imports 80 % of its wheat. Some 95 % of this comes from Ukraine and Russia.  

We remember from the Arab Spring, a key topic in your studies, how rising prices for bread and other foodstuffs and deteriorating living conditions triggered unrest and calls for regime change.

The war in Ukraine could lead to increased tensions in the Middle East and North Africa.

Some Western donor countries may have to reconsider their aid to the region.

And with so much attention now focused on Ukraine and Russia, other conflicts are now lower on the agenda of world leaders and the media.

The Government considers it important to honour Norway’s commitments, continue to give priority to food security, and show that we are maintaining our engagement in the Middle East and North Africa.

Second – the changing role of the US and regional powers.

The headline on the front cover of a recent issue of Foreign Affairs read: ‘The Middle East moves on. In search of a Post-American Order’.

The US has gradually been reducing its presence and engagement in the Middle East.

Many people have been critical of US military involvement. I myself took part in a demonstration when the US went into Iraq in 2003. Norway made the right choice back then, but at the same time, from today’s vantage point, it is possible to be critical of the fact that the US – later on – withdrew too quickly. 

We saw what happened. It created a vacuum. A breeding ground for Islamic terrorist groups. A new threat to European security – in the form of terrorist attacks.

As the US reduces its engagement in the region, it is leaving a void. But who is going to fill it? European countries do not appear willing to take on the role.

Russia and China have both been exploiting the new dynamic in the region. Moreover, the countries of the region have ambitions to play a stronger leadership role. Turkey, Iran, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example.

China is a major trading partner, investor and infrastructure developer. For many countries, such as Iraq, the most important.

Under its new Belt and Road Initiative, China is building or managing ports, such as Haifa in Israel and Duqm in Oman. There are more than six thousand Chinese companies operating in the UAE. Chinese firms have constructed a 450-kilometer-long high-speed rail line between Mecca and Medina.  

For China – the Middle Kingdom – a secure energy supply is the top priority.

At the same time, Europe – the EU member states – is often divided in its view of the conflicts in the region.

But the EU is a key humanitarian partner. And trading partner. The most important one for countries such as Israel and Morocco.

Third – closer integration.

Europe is the most integrated region in the world. The Middle East and North Africa one of the least integrated.

Trade often gives rise to cooperation in other areas too. Trade and investment require trust. Trust enhances mutual understanding.

Stronger economic and social integration in the Middle East and North Africa is essential. Trade within the region is limited.

A region less dominated by the major powers and a multipolar world order are creating more space for many of the countries to give greater priority to multilateralism. Close international cooperation to address common challenges.

We see this, for example, in the UAE, which is a member of the UN Security Council this year, along with Norway.

And Egypt will be hosting the UN climate summit, COP27, this year, followed by the UAE, which will be hosting COP28 in 2023. And Saudi Arabia chose energy and climate as the overall theme for its G20 Presidency.  

Ambitions are high. The countries are seeking to showcase the beginnings of their green transition. Countries in the region are taking the lead when it comes to climate change adaptation.

A quick aside here about the world order:

When I studied at Blindern, Professor Rolf Tamnes was the supervisor for a history project I took part in. In one of the many books he has been a contributor to – Krig og fred i det lange 20. århundre (‘War and peace in the long 20th century’, Norwegian only, 2013) – he writes that the 20th century is a century of paradoxes: because it is an era of extremes, with tens of millions of people killed in two world wars and under oppressive regimes, and because it is the century where we gained international norms. An international legal order.

But it is easy to forget this when faced with the brutal war in Ukraine.

Fourth – geopolitical shifts in the Middle East, with new alliances emerging. Unforeseen developments.

Take the normalisation agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – the Abraham Accords – facilitated by the US.

There are now 30 flights a week from Tel Aviv to Dubai. Ten from Tel Aviv to Marrakesh. Previously, Israeli planes barely had any access at all to airspace in the region. Israel was not on the Arab map.

Given the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the normalisation of relations with Israel was a massive step for the Arab countries to take. Now they should use their influence over Israel and Palestine to bring new momentum to the efforts to resolve the deadlocked conflict. The US is also expecting this.  

The historic Negev Summit in March brought together the foreign ministers of Israel, the US, Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE and Morocco.

A new regional council in the Red Sea corridor has been established, based in Riyadh.

Iran has reopened its representative office in Jeddah. Arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia have been holding direct talks. This is making the Persian Gulf a bit safer. For many years, the Gulf has been the area of the world with the greatest immediate risk of a major war.

My point is that contact has been established across traditional dividing lines. Challenging our preconceptions. And opening up more opportunities for our own engagement in the region.


What are the priorities of our Middle East policy?

I won’t be able to cover everything. I will mention a few of the priorities, and illustrate them with some examples of what we are doing. I will also point out some of the dilemmas we face.

To start with – Norway is seeking to build good relations with the countries in the region. To safeguard our interests, values and our security. We must adapt to a changing geopolitical landscape.   

With the US reducing its presence, other regional actors are becoming more important. We must give priority to seeking political and other contact with them. Countries such as Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

We have to talk to those that are setting the agenda and leading the way.

This is a matter of realpolitik.

Saying that we want to increase our contact with these countries does not mean that we are being naive. But we face a dilemma: many of these countries are moving towards more authoritarian forms of government.

Power is being concentrated in fewer hands. Opposition activists are being arrested. People are not being allowed a voice. Democracies are being eroded.

This is not just happening in the Middle East and North Africa. This disturbing trend is a global phenomenon.

But we cannot close the door to or cut off our online contact with regimes and authorities we do not like.

Freedom of expression is a priority for us, and it means being willing to talk to everyone. Moreover, it is by talking to those we disagree with that we can show what we stand for most clearly. If all contact is severed, we have no opportunity to communicate our views and arguments – or our interests. Our ability to exert an influence is limited. Dialogue is therefore essential in order to be able to defend our values in our foreign policy work.

We must also support civil society organisations where they exist. Make use of the channels we have.

It is important to maintain contact with many countries in the region. Some of them think largely along the same lines as us. Jordan is one example. Jordan has become a close partner. In the region and at the multilateral level, for instance in the UN.

King Abdullah II and Foreign Minister Safadi paid an official visit to Norway in March. We discussed cooperation in a wide range of areas. The King of Jordan also attended a military exercise, as a guest of the Norwegian Armed Forces. We engage in military cooperation, established in connection with our participation in the anti-ISIL coalition. I have frequent conversations with my colleague Mr Safadi.

Norway has played an active role in the global coalition against ISIL since it was established in 2014. The coalition is led by the US and is currently supported by 83 partners. Next week, I will be attending the coalition’s annual ministerial meeting in Marrakesh. The coalition’s efforts have helped to ensure that ISIL no longer has control over territory in Iraq and Syria. It would have been impossible to defeat ISIL without a broad military mandate. In August 2014, when ISIL was right outside Erbil, military force was what was needed. The Kurdish forces needed weapons support.

The terrorist attacks in Manchester, Istanbul and Paris were carried out by foreign terrorist fighters radicalised by ISIL. The number of terrorist attacks in Europe started to decline in 2018.

In 2022, our military contribution in Iraq consists of personnel providing security and advice at the headquarters of the Iraqi armed forces. Norwegian personnel deployed to Jordan are providing logistics support. Norway has also deployed advisers to the Nato Mission Iraq (NMI) and the maritime operation in the Strait of Hormuz.

We are involved in the efforts to safeguard security in the Gulf, where tensions can quickly surface.


Another priority for Norway is to strengthen its efforts to find political solutions to conflicts. Through targeted peace initiatives.

The new dynamic in the region is opening up opportunities for increased contact with countries whose interests coincide with our own. We are focusing on this now. Not least in our conflict resolution efforts.

We are in contact with Egypt about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With Qatar about the situation in Afghanistan. And with Oman about developments in Yemen.

Peace and reconciliation efforts involve bringing parties to war and conflict together. In order to find political solutions.

Parties that may be far apart. That may not even recognise each other as legitimate actors.

The focus is therefore on facilitating political dialogue. Between countries. Or between the authorities and non-state armed actors. 

Confidentiality and caution are essential in these efforts. As is building trust. It is often in the slightly more informal talks, behind the scenes, that the parties are able to reach agreement on reducing or resolving complex conflicts.

For us, this may mean talking to rebel groups that are listed as terrorist organisations. Our policy of maintaining contact with all relevant parties can therefore be controversial.

But the alternative – cutting off all communication and isolating rebel groups – has not been particularly successful in the Middle East.

In Libya, for example, we have financed confidential talks, in a back-channel process facilitated by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. As a result of these efforts, the UN was able to mediate a ceasefire agreement between the largest rebel groups and the Government in Tripoli.

Our engagement in peace and reconciliation efforts is vital for humanitarian reasons. But it is also in our interests. Because the conflicts in the Middle East affect our own security.

In many contexts, our efforts complement the UN’s mediation efforts. As in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

But there is also a demand for our participation as a facilitator of dialogue.

Because we have a reputation as a credible partner, with valuable expertise and experience, and a willingness to do our part to promote peace and to allow talks to be carried out behind closed doors, when this is necessary.

Our position is that we can talk to all groups that are seeking a political dialogue. And all groups that are prepared to engage with the process.

That is why we talk to Hamas. Not because we agree with them, but because of the significant role they play in the Palestinian refugee camps. And because the UN considers our dialogue with them important. Similarly, we maintain contact with the Taliban, Hizballah and with the Houthis. But we have our limits too – we do not talk to violent extremist groups like ISIL, for example.  


I would like to mention three conflicts in particular that are a priority for us: Yemen, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.    

First – Yemen.

Norway gives priority to humanitarian support, stabilisation and peacebuilding efforts in Yemen.  

The conflict is now in its eighth year. One of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. A man-made disaster. That is also destabilising the region.

What is Norway doing?

So far this year, we have allocated NOK 225 million in humanitarian aid. 

We are supporting the efforts of the UN Special Envoy to encourage talks between the Yemeni Government and the Houthi rebel movement. Just before Easter, the UN succeeded in brokering a truce. It remains fragile.

We ourselves have been in contact with all the parties, including the Houthis. And with regional actors, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. We are helping to build trust.

Yemen is on the agenda of the UN Security Council every month. We consistently emphasise that a peace process must involve all parties. That women must be included, in all phases. This is not the case today.

We have therefore helped the Yemeni Government to develop its national strategy on peace, women and security.

We are also working to prevent an environmental disaster in the form of a huge oil spill from a decrepit tanker off the coast of Yemen.

But my point is this: only negotiations on a political solution can bring a lasting end to the conflict and the suffering of the population. This is the message we communicate in all forums. The war must end.

Turning now to Syria – another high priority in our policy.

For many reasons. We have a duty to help where we can. Norway is a wealthy country.

Call it solidarity. But it is also in our interests.

Support for the Syria crisis was Norway’s largest single humanitarian effort in 2021. We provide funding for the activities of the UN, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and many Norwegian humanitarian organisations.

Funding from Norway is used to provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance and protection to Syrians. In all parts of the country and in the neighbouring countries.

Over the past few years, Norway has provided a total of NOK 16 billion in support. But it is important to point out that no funding from Norway goes to or via the Syrian authorities.

Support in northeastern Syria is particularly important. This is also intended to prevent the area from becoming a new potential breeding ground for ISIL.

Even though ISIL no longer has control over territory, it continues to pose a threat. ISIL has several thousand active members in Iraq and Syria and still has a firm foothold in rural Sunni Arab areas. We saw the attacks in the northeast a few weeks ago. The US is still engaged in the Kurdish-controlled areas as part of the fight against ISIL.

We are supporting the efforts to find a political solution in Syria, led by UN Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen, a Norwegian national. And we are working in particular to promote the participation of women and civil society in the political process.   

Moreover, Norway and Ireland have been given a special role in the Security Council when it comes to the humanitarian situation in Syria. We are what is known as co-penholders on the Syria humanitarian file. This means that we lead the negotiations and drafting of resolutions that provide a framework for action.

The unanimous adoption by the Security Council of a resolution allowing the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid from Turkey to Syria was of major political significance.

Its mandate expires in July. We are now working to secure an extension until 2023. It is vital to continue to provide emergency aid to internally displaced people in Syria.

And now, let’s turn to the oldest conflict in the region, the ‘mother of all conflicts’ – Israel and Palestine. Norway has been actively involved in the efforts to find a solution for years.

The conflict is no longer the most important one in the region. No genuine negotiations have taken place since 2014. 

At the same time, the parties still have to work together and resolve challenges. Every day.

When Yasser Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1994, together with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, he said in his Nobel lecture ‘Peace is in our interest: as only in an atmosphere of just peace shall the Palestinian people achieve their legitimate ambition for independence and sovereignty.’

But neither independence nor sovereignty has been achieved. That would require a political settlement negotiated and agreed by Israel and the PLO.

All negotiation attempts led by the US have so far failed. Frustrations are running high. We are still seeing acts of terrorism, violence and the use of force.

The UN’s efforts to find a peaceful solution to this conflict are also being led by a Norwegian, Tor Wennesland.

Norway has chaired the AHLC, the international donor group for Palestine, from the outset. Next week, we will be meeting in Brussels.

Within the framework of the AHLC, the Palestinians, the Israelis and the donors – including the US and the EU – are working to develop the foundation for a future Palestinian state.

The focus is on improving living conditions. Stimulating economic growth.  Gradually transferring authority from the Israeli administration to the Palestinian Authority. Efforts to build Palestinian state institutions have been ongoing since the signing of the Oslo Accords. And the Palestinian state-building project must continue.

For the Palestinians, a well-functioning Palestinian state would be the best argument in favour of their freedom and sovereignty. The best defence of the vision of a two-state solution. The only solution that will safeguard the right to self-determination, security and human rights. For both peoples.

Norway has been engaged in seeking ways to help resolve this conflict for a long time. And so we should, but we must also be prepared to take a critical look at our own role. So that we can ensure that our actions do not prolong or further entrench the status quo. It is now nearly 30 years since we became involved. Our role is dependent on there being a genuine willingness to seek a solution. At present, negotiations between the parties have ground to a halt.

This year, Norway has increased aid to the Palestinians, including through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

But I make it clear to Palestine that the Palestinian leadership must increase its legitimacy among its own people.

And I make it clear to Israel that the settlements on occupied land are illegal. A violation of international law. And yet Israeli settlers continue to attack Palestinians.

My main message to Israeli and Palestinian leaders is that they must return to the negotiating table as a matter of urgency. Before it is too late.


And finally – a few words about another of our priorities: promoting the green transition.  

The petroleum-based economies in the region have control over vast resources. They produce 30 % of the oil consumed in the world. And have close to 50 % of the world’s untapped oil reserves.  

This gives them a position of global power that will slowly change as the transition to a greener economy gathers pace.

These countries are therefore not standing idly by. A green transition is under way. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar. The region’s largest wind farm is to be found in northern Saudi Arabia.

The green transition offers major opportunities for Norwegian companies and technology, in areas relating to renewable energy and climate-friendly solutions. We can be at the forefront. And work together with others. Israel is a global hub for innovation and high technology.

Climate change and the green transition were also topics I discussed with Egypt’s Prime Minister. The Norwegian renewable energy solutions provider Scatec has a substantial engagement in the country. I was present at the signing of their new agreement. For me, this is the closest I come to being a door-opener.   

Opening doors and forging ties is an important job. Close cooperation between countries is needed to combat climate change. As is cooperation between the public and private sectors.

We see at our diplomatic and consular missions that Norway has a good reputation as a trading partner. I think this is due to the reputation of our sovereign wealth fund, our expertise in the field of energy, and our sound ocean management.

But another thing we are seeing is that a number of Middle Eastern countries are looking to learn more about what promoting gender equality has done for Norway. They have seen that the entry of women into the Norwegian labour market, in the 1970s, has generated economic growth.  

They want to emulate this. Gender equality as a means of advancing economic growth.

I could mention here that Professor Bjørn Olav Utvik writes in his book on Islamism (Islamismen, 2020, Norwegian only) that there is no doubt that the empowerment of women will continue to advance in the region. That women will take on political positions, as well as leadership roles in companies. That a more feminist interpretation of Islam’s holy scriptures is emerging.

Change is in the air. It is exciting to see. And important to give the countries credit for. Even though there is still a long way to go.


At the beginning of my speech today, I asked why the Middle East and North Africa region is important for Norway – and as a course of study for students here at the university. 

I have talked about why conflicts, weak states and regional tensions – in our southern neighbourhood – also have an impact on our own security.

I have pointed out that our engagement is intended to encourage political solutions, promote human rights, help internally displaced people, increase trade and investments, and empower women.

The Middle East and North Africa region has a young population. The proportion of people in 15-24 age group is expected to rise by as much as 23 % in the next few years, as opposed to just 1 % for the world as a whole. This will present some major challenges, but it is also a resource. A renewable resource.

Their future directly affects ours. Which is why, ultimately, policy is about improving people’s lives, both close to home and across the world. Giving young people opportunities.

We therefore need centres of expertise in Norway, young people with insight into the Middle East and North Africa who can work in ministries, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in organisations, in research, and the business sector. Who can take part in the debate about what our policy instruments should be.

And maybe our engagement can inspire more people to write Master’s dissertations on the Middle East.

Thank you.