Vicar of Arabia: September 11 an 'Afghan issue', the Gulf looks to the future
Msgr. Hinder has lived in the area since 2004 and has experienced tensions and dangers in the years following the attacks on the Twin Towers. Little interest in a historical revisionism, concerns are about economy and development. From the Emirates positive steps in inter-religious dialogue. Christian witness in the social sphere.
Abu Dhabi (AsiaNews) - The September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks are "connected to the events" in Afghanistan, which have had repercussions "on security" in the countries of the Gulf. That said there has never been "an in-depth analysis" of the reasons - also confessional - that generated them, notes Msgr. Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of southern Arabia (United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen) and apostolic administrator of the vacant seat of northern Arabia (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain). In an interview with AsiaNews, the prelate notes periods of "tension" in the years since the attacks, also due to the military campaigns launched by the U.S., but the general interest is directed "to the economy, rather than to history." Below is our full interview with the Vicar of Arabia.
Your Excellency, what impact does the 9/11 anniversary have in Gulf countries?
On an official level, the event is remembered, but everything that happened is linked to events that took place in Afghanistan. People talk about 9/11 events associating them to what is happening in Kabul in the last period [with the new rise of the Taliban], rather than analysing the past at a regional level. The general interest, especially in the Emirates, is in economics rather than history.
What are your memories of the period following the attacks?
I've been living in the Gulf since January 2004 and my most vivid memory is of the climate of great uncertainty and insecurity that existed at the time. The measures taken in fear of attacks or violence were very strict. In certain environments, such as the embassies in Riyadh and Sana'a, there was great tension. It was an uncertain period; no one knew which direction events would take. My brothers told me to be careful, never move alone and always have a guard with me. For Westerners to be identified as American and become a target was a real danger.
And how did the relationship with the United States evolve?
From behind the scenes, what emerges is the attempt to avoid further wars, to arrive at a coexistence based on respect, even if from different positions. Here in the Emirates, but also elsewhere, there is an evident attempt to reduce the potential for conflict, to mitigate contrasts, to defuse the tensions [see Qatar and Saudi Arabia]. The first step is to put an end to the war in Yemen, an open and deep wound in the body of the peninsula.
The September 11 attackers had a clear Islamic extremist imprint, linked to al-Qaeda. What influence does religion have today?
Today the situation is more positive than in the past. Certainly, there are differences between the various nations linked to the ruling families, but, to give an example, in the Emirates the program of tolerance and openness continues. Compared to the past, there has been an improvement. Abu Dhabi hosted the joint document on brotherhood by the pope and the imam of al-Azhar and here the so-called "Abrahamic House" is being built as a meeting point. The laying of the foundation stone took place the very evening of the signing.
In short, a region that does not erase the past but appears more projected towards the future...
True! Resources are not invested in studying the past. We Christians tend to look back 2,000 years or more, while here there is no such awareness. The gaze is on the future from the point of view of growth and development, perhaps even too fast as we see in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, becoming more and more dependent on oil and gas.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have launched two projects: Vision 2030 and 2050. With what consequences?
From now until 2050, the main theme will be the environment, in a difficult area where millions of people live in close contact. In addition to the ecological problem, there is also the question of security, the protection of installations that guarantee life: think of an attack on desalination centres, on which we depend for drinking water. Also, the development of an agriculture suited to the area, because 95% of what we eat is imported. Domestic production, opening to tourism, congresses, business, although the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed this process. Dubai 2020 is the first showcase, then Tolerance Week in November where I am participating as a speaker.
Bishop Hinder, a thought for Christians in closing: what are the prospects?
For Christians too, the question is linked to a more global context, to the future role of the United States, to the economic and cultural weight of China, the contrasting tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Christian community must, first of all, survive, and if there is growth, so much the better. It will remain a reality formed by migrants, there will be no great changes. We must take care of what we have and develop it: there are spaces for witness, especially in the social sphere.