I Think We Need to Talk

Published: June 20, 2006

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Editor’s Note
When you look at Prince Turki al-Faisal’s travels in America since he presented his credentials as Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States last September you can be excused if legendary country musician Johnny Cash’s song “I’ve Been Everywhere” comes to mind.

“..Of travel I’ve had my share, man.. I’ve been everywhere.. I’ve been to: ..Louisville.. Nashville.. Knoxville.. Ombabika.. Schefferville.. Jacksonville.. Waterville.. Costa Rock.. Pittsfield.. Springfield.. Bakersfield.. Shreveport.. Hackensack.. Cadillac.. Fond du Lac.. Davenport.. Idaho.. Jellico.. Argentina.. Diamantina.. Pasadena.. Catalina.. ..See What I Mean.. ..I’ve been everywhere, man..”

Well you get the idea. He’s been around.

At all of Prince Turki’s stops — places like Louisville, Nashville, Washington, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Glendale and Phoenix, Arizona, Houston and Dallas and more — he has shared his views and listened to American audiences (see below for links to selected speeches) who had opinions and questions about Saudi Arabia and its ties to the United States.

This week he addressed the past, present and future of US-Saudi relations with an audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington. SUSRIS is pleased to share his presentation, titled “I Think We Need to Talk,” as a reminder that he “is everywhere, man,” and has much to share.

Brookings Institution
Washington, DC
June 19, 2006

Thank you, Ambassador Indyk, for that kind introduction. I am glad to be here today. I should thank Mr. Peter Singer for his work at Brookings dealing with Middle East issues. And I would like to thank Ms. Rabab Fayad for coordinating this event. Thank you.

I noticed on the way over here that in this part of town there is Brookings, the Carnegie Endowment, and the Center for American Progress. If you can’t find what suits you, I guess you can simply move down the road. And if you’re still not happy, there’s a Starbucks around the corner. Of course, there’s a Starbucks around every corner.

I would like to thank you again for inviting me to speak here today. I appreciate the opportunity to engage so many thought leaders in this area. You play an important role in American and international politics. Your ideas are considered, and actions are taken based on your assessments of global issues. As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I hope today some of my ideas may inspire future actions that will contribute to better international understanding and cooperation.

The theme here today – five years after September 11 – is an important one. It would be an understatement to say that during this time much has changed in the world, because on that day, everything changed in an instant. Much more has happened since. But the transformation we’ve seen has been less about tearing apart and more about rebuilding.

We all had to begin again, because more than buildings collapsed that day. Relationships, understanding, and security – all fell apart. We had to reexamine who we thought we knew, and our sense of the world around us. Saudi Arabia certainly went through this. One American columnist wrote after 9/11 that Saudi Arabia had gone through a state of shock, then denial, then introspection, and then action. I think this is a fair assessment.

The United States realized that its concerns with the Middle East and the Arab and Islamic worlds can no longer be side issues. Certainly for the Saudi-U.S. relationship, a great deal changed right away. And this is what I would like to talk about today.

Over the past five years, the relationship between our two nations has been severely tested. But we have endured the challenges and we have come very far in that time. It is appropriate to speak about how far we’ve come, and where we need to go, and, definitely, some ideas on how we can get there.

To begin, let’s look at where the Saudi-U.S. relationship was prior to September 11. Our relationship worked because we had a lot in common. I think, as people, Saudis and Americans genuinely liked each other. We’re plain spoken. We believe in faith and family. And over the years, we had formed friendships and business partnerships.

Our relationship was polite. We danced around some issues. And although there were many dimensions to the relationship – including trade and military cooperation – oil was at the center.

The relationship had its ups and downs, as all do. We helped each other where we could. Out mutual efforts to combat the threat of communism throughout the world united us in a common cause – one in which we both prevailed. And together, we stopped Saddam Hussein’s aggression and drove him from Kuwait. We were strong military allies, reliable energy partners and good friends.

But, our sensitivities to each other’s sensitivities led us to keep things from each other. And criticisms definitely festered beneath the surface on both sides.

After September 11, this relationship, which had lasted in calm for some 60 years, was plunged into crisis. There now existed deep suspicion, mistrust, and misperception. Everything had to be reexamined. It was a horrible period of time. Saudi Arabia, for one, faced brutal criticism. Our country, our faith, and our national character were maligned almost daily in books, newspapers and on television.

If we look at some titles of books from this period – published as works of scholarship – we can recall some of the sentiment of the time. Titles included Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Its Soul for Saudi Crude; Forbidden Truth: U.S.-Taliban Secret Oil Diplomacy, Saudi Arabia and the Failed Search for bin Laden; Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism; and perhaps the most absurd of all, House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties.

There are plenty more. “Instant experts” – as they are called – came from everywhere. Though few, if any, ever even visited the Kingdom. But by using words like jihad, madrassa, and Wahhabism, they were able to tap into the uncertainty and misunderstanding that haunted our relationship.

Nevertheless, through hard work, and because our nations have leaders who understand the importance of relations between our countries, we’re now emerging from this period. The United States and Saudi Arabia have reaffirmed their commitment to each other. We’ve confirmed that we are allies. And our countries have recognized the importance of why we have stayed together for so long.

We have also recognized that many of the world’s major challenges, including the war on terrorism, stability in the Middle East, and energy security cannot be successfully resolved without both our close commitment and cooperation.

The hallmarks of the relationship are that we keep nothing from one another. We know that we have to confront problems and issues instead of looking past them.

A good example of this was Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. We were straightforward in expressing our views. But when the invasion began, we knew where we belonged – on the side of the Iraqi people. Since 2003, we have provided humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people. And Saudi Arabia continues to support efforts to bring about a peaceful and united Iraqi government that represents all of the Iraqi people.

I would say, most importantly though, during our period of reexamination, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia recognized that the relationship is bound by much more than oil. We have a number of important pillars that support our relationship. I can think of five: oil, trade, the war on terrorism, Middle East stability, and military cooperation.

These pillars form our foundation. They define our interaction and provide us with concrete reasons why we are still together. But where do we go from here? How do we continue to improve our relationship? There are still many issues left unresolved. There are still sticking points.

To address the challenges before us and the challenges ahead, the first thing we have done is to put in place stronger links between our two governments and an institutional framework to better manage the many complex issues we have on our common agenda. The clearest example of how this is taking shape is the Saudi-U.S. Strategic Dialogue. This new mechanism is intended to institutionalize relations between our countries to overcome inevitable differences and to align our resources and capabilities to a greater extent. The Strategic Dialogue is progressing through regular meetings between the Saudi Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State and the establishment of Working Groups from both governments to work constructively and comprehensively, on a continuous basis, in a range of issues of importance to both countries

The first meeting occurred during King Abdullah’s visit with President Bush last year in Crawford, and since then Foreign Minister Prince Saud and Secretary of State Rice have met twice for the Strategic Dialogue. The gatherings are open to candid discussion and have taken on a collegial tone. There were also be meetings of the six Working Groups, which include: Energy; Economic and Financial Affairs; Consular Affairs; Cultural Affairs and Human Resources; Military Affairs; and Counterterrorism.

Another thing we are doing to improve relations is to increase our people-to-people contact. For one, the Kingdom is encouraging more delegations of officials, and business leaders, and citizens to come to the United States to share their views and to learn in kind. We have also expanded a scholarship program to send our students to college abroad. Most of our students will be coming to the United States. They will not only be receiving a world-class education, they will be forming the next generation of friendships and bonds between Saudis and Americans. They will be the true ambassadors.

And yet another thing we can do is develop better relations between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Congress. This is a priority for me. I have been meeting with members of Congress. I have been working to answer their concerns and questions about the Kingdom, and express to them our concerns and our questions about how we view our relationship with the U.S. There are a lot of issues on this level, as your representatives in both Houses of Congress are some of our toughest critics.

Last November, for example, a month after I officially became ambassador, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled “Saudi Arabia: Friend or Foe.” Frankly, I thought that was a bit insulting to Saudis because we have never been a foe of the United States. On the contrary, in the last 60 years, we have always considered ourselves to be good friends of the U.S., and felt that the U.S. looked upon us as good friends.

I made a point to meet with Senator [Arlen] Specter, who chaired the hearing, and we talked about his concerns. They were mainly about education and religious extremism in Saudi Arabia. I reached out to the senator as a respectful friend. I made sure he knows that I am here and available to him – as is the embassy staff. And in the future, he knows he doesn’t have to search for an interlocutor when he has issues or questions. He can come directly to me for answers.

That is a message I want all members to hear. If you have a concern about Saudi Arabia, come to us. In fact, I would like them to come to us in any case. I would like to see more members coming to the Kingdom. Do you know how many members of Congress have been to Saudi Arabia since September 11? Less than 20.

For a country of such critical importance to American, regional, and global affairs, why have so few American representatives come to the Kingdom? We welcome them. We want them to see our country. We want them to meet our businessmen. We want them to hear from our citizens – our men, our women, and our children. I guarantee if they come to the Kingdom, their outlook on us will be changed for the positive.

This brings me to my last observation on how we can improve our relationship in the future. This last one perhaps affects all of you the most. Because I think the type of discourse between the United States and Saudi Arabia needs to change.

We don’t mind being criticized. There is a well-known saying in Arabic: “Your true friend is one who is honest with you, not one who agrees with you.” But it is the way in which Americans criticize – whether it is politicians or public figures or thought leaders – that causes us concern. We often hear political rhetoric and not constructive commentary.

Americans want to see and hear about reform and change in Saudi society and political culture. This is on the agenda. But we’re not going to change just because you told us to. We are changing and reforming our society because it is the right thing to do for our country. Making dictums only makes matters more difficult. It hardens all elements of society. So we need your comments to be a constructive addition to our reform efforts, not something that makes the process markedly more difficult.

For all of you here today, why not productively engage us instead of engaging in rhetoric that seems designed to drive us away? Currently, we find the analysis of Saudi Arabia lacking. It does not have a clear and real understanding of what is going on in the Kingdom. It needs to be less revealing of political agenda, for good or for bad. That would be helpful to both sides.

In fact, you too should come and spend time in the Kingdom. We don’t mind discussing the difficult issues. We’re doing so ourselves. Several years ago, we initiated a National Dialogue, which has covered issues such as extremism, the role of women, and cultural tolerance. King Abdullah has directed that the next National Dialogue focus on educational development in the Kingdom. This is an important topic right now.

Your opinions, your thoughts, and your analysis are not just considered by Americans. They are considered by Saudis, too. And, if we want to improve the state of our relations, it would behoove us to improve every level of our communications. Our interests are too intertwined. If you look at the problems we’re facing today – the war on terrorism, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine and Israel, energy – none of these problems can be faced alone. The U.S. cannot deal with these problems without us. And we cannot deal with them without you.

I hope this has provided you with an overview of the Saudi perspective five years later. I now look forward to hearing your perspective. I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.

As we say in Arabic, Ashkurukum shukran jazeelan – thank you all very much – and barak Allah feekum – God bless you all.

Source: Saudi Embassy Web Site

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Issues of the Day: Saudi Ambassador to the US On Sunday Talk Show – SUSRIS IOI – Feb. 6, 2006

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Prince Turki Al-Faisal’s Views on Terrorist Attacks and Bin Laden – SUSRIS IOI – Dec. 7, 2004

Prince Turki al-Faisal Talks With Charlie Rose – The Charlie Rose Show – PBS – February 13, 2006
Part 1 – Relations, Oil

Part 2 – Iraq, Iran, War on Terror

Part 3 – Middle East Peace

About Prince Turki al Faisal

Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia Bio

BBC Profile

Global Security.org

Highlights from Prince Turki’s Meetings with Americans – Selected Speeches

June 18 – Observations as an Arab in America – Prince Turki Al-Faisal – ADC Convention, Washington, DC

June 7 – Prince Turki Address to the Kentucky World Affairs Council – Louisville, KY

June 6 – Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Turki Al-Faisal at the Nashville Chambers of Commerce, Nashville, TN

May 10 – Prince Turki’s keynote Address to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Conference

Apr 21 – Prince Turki address at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy

Mar 24 – Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Turki Al-Faisal address to the World Affairs Council of Seattle, Washington

Feb 28 – Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States before the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Atlanta, Georgia

Feb 16 – Prince Turki al-Faisal, Ambassador to the US / Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, MA / “Saudi Arabia in the Global Community”

Feb 15 – Prince Turki Al-Faisal address at Harvard’s Kennedy School – “Facing Global Challenges Together”

Feb 8 – Prince Turki Al-Faisal address at Thunderbird, the Garvin School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona

Feb 7 – Prince Turki Al-Faisal address to the Committee on Foreign Relations of Phoenix, Arizona

Feb 7 – Saudi Ambassador addresses the World Affairs Council in Houston

Feb 7 – Prince Turki Al-Faisal address to the Dallas World Affairs Council – “Saudi Arabia and the Global Community”