What Can Be Done?: A Conversation with Prince Turki Al-Faisal

Published: October 31, 2012

Editor’s Note:

One of our goals in serving as your chronicle of developments in Saudi-US relations is to bring you the unvarnished perspectives and insights of the leading figures shaping the course of that partnership in our exclusive interview series. Few can be said to have been more influential in forging cooperation and building bridges in the relationship than Prince Turki Al-Faisal. He is currently Chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and is one of the founders of the King Faisal Foundation, the namesake of which was his father. His distinguished career in service of his country included 24 years as Director General of the Intelligence Directorate, the Kingdom’s principal foreign intelligence service; as Ambassador to the United Kingdom; and as Ambassador to the United States. Since leaving public service he has been extremely active as a voice for the Kingdom. SUSRIS readers are mindful of the many interviews and articles we have been privileged to bring you with and about Prince Turki. Many of these are provided as links following this interview.

Today SUSRIS provided for your consideration Prince Turki’s keynote remarks to the 21st Arab-US Policymakers Conference, made on Thursday 25th October, one of the most important events on the Washington, D.C. calendar to examine important issues of the day and challenges facing the United States in the Arab world. Immediately following his presentation to the hundreds of assembled participants, many of whom were there specifically to hear Prince Turki, we sat down with His Royal Highness for a conversation that covered a wide scope of issues: the health of the Saudi-US relationship; the challenges of Iran and Syria; energy developments; reforms in the Kingdom; and much more. We believe you will find this conversation insightful and look forward to your comments.


What Can Be Done?: A Conversation with Prince Turki Al-Faisal

[SUSRIS] Let’s start with the health of the Saudi-US relationship. It has had ups and downs – some liken it to a marriage – and you have been frank in talking about some of the issues. How do you see the state of the relationship, given the many challenges that require Washington and Riyadh to be working together?

[Prince Turki Al-Faisal] Well, being outside the loop of official government reporting by intelligence and diplomatic sources, or otherwise, I can reflect on what is in the public domain.

I think the relationship is good. President Obama has met King Abdullah several times – in Riyadh, at the G-20 Summit in London and so on – and they have developed a personal rapport. That has been reflected in close cooperation between the governments on various issues.

On the situation in the Middle East, whether it is Syria or Iran or the Gulf or the Arab Spring, they have been equally frank with each other. That’s the way that leadership should be.

So my understanding is that while we differ on several issues as I mentioned in my presentation [Arab-US Policymakers Conference keynote remarks], especially on Palestine, that on other issues the relationship is pretty strong and mutually beneficial.

[SUSRIS] You have said that U.S. opposition to the Palestine statehood question at the UN could result in damage to the relationship [“Veto A State, Lose An Ally”]. How do you see US diplomacy at the UN in this case having played out?

[Prince Turki] I think that it is still a central issue in the relationship between the two countries and not just in the government. It touches the average Saudi citizen very close to their heart. So, Palestinian statehood, if you like, is not only an idea for Palestinians but it is a long wished for aim of the Saudi people. So as I said, it will continue to touch on the hearts of Saudis.

[SUSRIS] Did your strong words about the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN elicit any reaction from the US government?

[Prince Turki] I have not been contacted.

[SUSRIS] Did you have any sense that Washington was alarmed?

[Prince Turki] I don’t know. That was not brought to my attention by anybody. But the governments talk to each other and what they say to each other they generally keep to each other unless it appears on Wikileaks.

[SUSRIS] How would you rate the cooperation between Washington and Riyadh on the major regional issues confronting them?

[Prince Turki] Watching from the public view, I think there is a lot of contact and a lot of discussion between officials here and in the Kingdom. Whether and how that will bear out on specific courses of action, I don’t know.

[SUSRIS] Can we go down the list of the problem areas? Iran is currently on the minds of Americans who follow international developments, especially as it has been raised in the presidential debates. What is the view from Riyadh as American politics touches on the question of what to do vis a vis Iran?

[Prince Turki] If I understood the debate positions clearly it seemed that both President Obama and Mr. Romney have placed the Iran issue on a track of potential actions. Both have espoused, and I think they fully support, sanctions and diplomacy to varying degrees, ratcheting them up as time goes by to put more pressure on the Iranian government. Both stress that military action is the last option. That was reassuring at least from my personal point of view, and I’m here not speaking for the government.

As you know my view has always been that dealing with Iran in this manner is insufficient. No matter how many sanctions you put on a country it is always capable of marshalling its resources to put them where it sees its interests lie. Despite the worsening situation in Iran I think that they will apply the resources to do what they hope to do, to develop a nuclear weapon capability. They will do whatever is available to them to do and cut on other things.

So that is one aspect.

The other aspect is that there is going to be a conference in Helsinki, Finland in December dedicated to the issue of establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. This conference is coming out of the NPT review conference in New York that was held in 2010. And all of the NPT signatories including the United States and the other members of the permanent five, of the UN Security Council have supported holding the Helsinki conference. That’s where the issue of Iranian nuclear weapons and other nuclear weapon states in the area should be dealt with, as a collective interest of the five permanent members of the Security Council. I hope that when the conferees meet in Helsinki that the five permanent members of the Security Council will do two things. That they will declare that it is their policy that there be a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and that in order to achieve that, the five permanent members will offer two guarantees.

One is a nuclear security umbrella for all countries party to the zone.

Second, that the five permanent members will also guarantee any action that might be necessary including military action to prevent any of these countries from developing a weapon of mass destruction.

That way you will level the playing field for everybody. And hopefully Israel will come along and be a party to this zone rather than keeping itself out and claiming that it does not have nuclear weapons and that it is not going to introduce them, when we all know that they have introduced them and is keeping them outside the debate.

[SUSRIS] Israel doesn’t acknowledge having nuclear weapons; they have a policy of nuclear ambiguity.

[Prince Turki] It is not ambiguous any more. It is more wishful thinking on their part to think that they are leaving us in an ambiguous state. We are certain that they have these weapons. So if that issue of the zone can be implemented under those two conditions that the five permanent members should be willing to meet, then I think the issue of a nuclear armed Iran or Saudi Arabia or Turkey or Israel or Egypt, will simply disappear.

[SUSRIS] That may answer the question of what next if sanctions fail and military action is not taken, and Iran goes on to develop a nuclear weapon. Would that be sufficient for U.S. allies in the Gulf, the assurance of a nuclear umbrella?

[Prince Turki] Of course. It comes from the five permanent members. It is not addressed at someone, but rather a collective effort, so it would be welcome in my view. Not just by the six members of the GCC but hopefully also by other members of the future zone.

[SUSRIS] So that would set aside the fear that other states would proliferate.

[Prince Turki] Definitely.

[SUSRIS] In the case of Syria, American action has been diplomacy up to this point. How would you assess reaction to the Syrian crisis?

[Prince Turki] From a purely personal point of view I think it is not just the United States. I think it is the world community, which has been criminally neglectful in this case. The Kingdom, of course, from the very beginning has aimed at stopping the fighting, stopping the killing. However, it continues every day, now climbing to 200-300 a day. Syria has long surpassed 30,000 victims who have been killed in this conflict. Until when will the international community wait for something to happen? Will it be another 30,000 lives before action is taken? That is unacceptable. And it is not just the United States. It is Europe. It is Russia. It is China. All of the big players in the world are criminally in contempt of humanity. So getting them to do something is important.

What can be done?

I think several things can be done. It has been a year and a half since the Syrian conflict began. By now those who are on the playing field should be known to intelligence services. There can’t be any surprises left. People like the Washington Post reporter David Ignatius have been able to go into the country. He was able to go in and travel all the way to Aleppo and come back. He was able to go from one place to another so presumably trained intelligence officers could find out what is happening on the ground and report back from there.

So, the excuse that we don’t know who will be coming next or we can’t have confidence if we supply weapons or who is going to get them, at the end of the day does not hold in my view. By now there should have been identification of who is who, and what is their direction.

If the Syrian opposition cannot defend itself, of course the government is not going to cede anything to them. They can deploy their helicopters. They have a constant supply of spare parts and ammunition. They even have new weaponry coming from Russia and perhaps from Iran.

Last night in a discussion I was having someone noted that Prime Minister Maliki just signed an arms deal with Russia from which he will get helicopter supplies in six months. The point is that a normal arms deal like that would take at least two or three years for that supply to come through. Why is this one so quick? The obvious conclusion is that those helicopters are meant for Syria. As long as that happens Bashar Al-Assad does not need to concede to the opposition.

There should be no fear of supplying, let’s say, anti-aircraft missiles, or anti-tank weaponry to allow the opposition to have the means of defense. You know there are technological means that can be used in these weapons to nullify their use, to interrupt their workings once they’re not needed anymore. As I said everyone should already know who is who on the ground.

Only after the opposition has such weapons and a few of these helicopters are brought down, or Mig-29 fighter jets are brought down, or T-72 tanks are blasted by the opposition, the Army itself will start to have second thoughts about its attacks against its people. Then you can begin to talk about who is going to succeed and who is not going to succeed.

Bashar Al-Assad is even coming under more pressure now by his own Alawite community. We see differences growing within the Alawite community. There were, as you know, clashes between the government and some of these people in places like Qardaha, which was presumably the stronghold of the Assad family. Even there the Assad family is seeing the obvious signs of opposition growing. Make use of those things.

As I understand it there are committees that have been formed over the last year and a half by the people themselves. They fend for themselves: the provision of food, medical supplies, transport, shelter, etcetera. These are working committees, chosen by people on the ground whether in towns, villages, neighborhoods, or the countryside, and they basically form the roots of bottoms up bureaucracy and government that would replace what is in power now.

I had a discussion with the reporter David Ignatius last night. He said these committees control the area of Aleppo and the north of Syria to the Turkish border and not the government. You have a large segment of the population fending for themselves. They are living on supplies of humanitarian aid from Saudi Arabia, from Qatar, from Kuwait, from other places. The aid probably goes through Turkey in the north and Jordan in the south.

[SUSRIS] Knowing the players in the Syrian opposition is the argument against those who make the case that like in Libya arms could wind up in the hands of the wrong people?

[Prince Turki] If you look at Libya, yes, the arms went to certain people and they have fortified themselves with these weapons. What are these weapons that they have fortified themselves with? They are small arms. Nothing sophisticated. Nothing to bring down civilian aircraft if they reached the hands of a terrorist group, for example. So even there I think the comparison is false. Because the initial premise about Libya is that those weapons are alarming and in the wrong hands, but they are not that sophisticated.

[SUSRIS] One of the major issues raised by critics is not supplying materiel – there are press reports of providing communications and non lethal aid – but the big discussion is over a no-fly zone, whether NATO countries as they did in Libya should prevent the regime from flying helicopters and other aircraft.

[Prince Turki] I don’t think there is a need to do that in Syria. If you supply the Syrians with the necessary means, those planes will not be flying.

[SUSRIS] And the necessary means, some people think they are coming from the Gulf.

[Prince Turki] Well they haven’t yet. Where are we going to get these means? We are going to get them from other countries. And if it is a U.S. made weapon, the U.S. will say, “Nope.” As you heard today [AUSPC Defense Cooperation Panel], the restrictions on weapons sales from the United States are very extensive and they are conditional on who gets what. If you want to give them to somebody you have to report and get approval. And the Russians are not going to supply us with weapons to give to the Free Syrian Army.

[SUSRIS] So the reports that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing small arms and other…

[Prince Turki] Small arms, maybe, but there are no restrictions on small arms. Anti-tank weapons or anti-aircraft weapons are restricted by arms sales agreements.

[SUSRIS] Can we shift our attention to other issues in the Gulf? There have been reports about friction in the Saudi-UK relationship over a British parliamentary review of its ties with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Can you comment?

[Prince Turki] I really don’t know much. I’ve seen what has been written in the British press. That’s where I first saw the comments and I didn’t even know that Saudi Arabia had complained about this issue.

[SUSRIS] So what would you say to critics in London regarding Bahrain?

[Prince Turki] I would say they are misinformed. One of the things they claim is that Saudi forces entered Bahrain last year to quell rioting, which is absolutely false. Not one Saudi soldier participated in any riot quelling action. Not one gun was fired. Not one tear gas canister was deployed by Saudi forces. These forces went there to protect infrastructure – the airport, the seaport, the oil refinery, the business center of Bahrain. That’s all they were doing there.

[SUSRIS] Can you tell us about your speech last week at the Global Economic Symposium in Brazil concerning 100% of Saudi energy needs being met by renewable sources?

[Prince Turki] These policies are from statements by the Council of Ministers at the time of the establishment of the King Abullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, or K.A.CARE. The Minister of Petroleum has also come out on this subject. The President of Aramco has made statements about that. I made a presentation of what the government has said. Why it has not been noticed much by the press, I don’t know. I was merely sharing a presentation of what others in the government have said.

[SUSRIS] Can you comment on the energy concerns in the Kingdom that led to this new direction?

[Prince Turki] I think there are two concerns. One, of course, is depletion. Oil is a very precious resource. And producing it at these huge numbers will make its lifespan much shorter than otherwise. Second, we are consuming more of it ourselves and therefore we must plan for alternatives or it will reduce our ability to provide what the world needs, as we do now. Obviously it would also cut down on our income from that resource.

[SUSRIS] There has been a radical change in the energy production capacity in North America, especially given the addition of new natural gas reserves into the market. How does that change the overall energy picture?

[Prince Turki] As we heard today [AUSPC 2012] from Molly Williamson, oil is going to be a major energy source for decades. It may not be things as usual; it is going to change the complexion of the oil industry. However, having interdependence, in my view, is good. Bringing in alternative sources is fine, no matter how small or large the volumes are. There will always be a need for oil as a source of energy, because it is much cheaper than all the other alternatives. In the United States there will be added costs, the transportation, the infrastructure, with the fracking process. So it’s not as cheap as people are saying it is. That’s why I think we’ve seen Saudi oil sales to the United States have risen, not declined. In the oil market you can never hide things. It is there and everyone deals with it. It’s reported every month. It’s transparent. Nobody can hide that the U.S. is importing more Saudi oil now than six months ago.

[SUSRIS] Last year when it was announced that Osama bin Laden was tracked down and killed what was your first thought?

[Prince Turki] My first thought was thank God. Now the Americans can leave [Afghanistan] and declare victory. They didn’t. And that was a big disappointment. I thought Obama would have jumped at that chance. But whoever is advising him seemed to be of the view to keep boots on the ground in a place like Afghanistan rather than not losing lives in Afghanistan. Whether it has something to do with Central Asia, or Pakistan, or Iran, or whatever, I don’t know. There is something in the calculation that is unclear as to why the U.S. wants to keep forces, even post-2014. As you know the United States already signed a 30-year agreement with the Afghan government on training. That is not going to remain just training.

[SUSRIS] What is the impact on the scourge of global terrorism?

[Prince Turki] It will continue. Terrorism has been with us throughout history. Nothing will eradicate it. There will always be those who will find an excuse or a reason or a motivation to commit terrorist acts. I think it is in the nature of human beings. There will be a core group of people who will use terrorist activities to achieve their ends. So I don’t think terrorism will end, but Al Qaeda as Al Qaeda, it has changed. It has fractured. And you see Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and you see Al Qaeda in North Africa and you see Al Qaeda in other places coming up, but not the central command that bin Laden definitely performed when he was still alive.

[SUSRIS] In your keynote remarks at the Policymakers Conference today you gave insights into modern Saudi Arabia and you touched on reforms in the Kingdom. You referred to some in society who were not sure Saudi Arabia had a need for “all that new-fangled” business. Can you expand on the obstacles to modernity?

[Prince Turki] It is like any society. It’s not peculiar to Saudi Arabia. You go to some towns and villages in your country. People have strong views on social morays and practices, same sex marriage and things like that. It is something that is troubling to sectors of your society. In our country we have similar congregations of people who have views on certain issues. But on the whole the government and the people are going forward.

In the last few days I have seen reports about women practicing in Saudi courts as lawyers, representing and arguing cases before the judges. This is totally unprecedented in the Kingdom but it is something that is happening. There are other such examples that one can cite, in which the Kingdom is moving forward.

Since the time I became my country’s ambassador to the United Kingdom [2003-2005] I have referred to the reform issue in Saudi Arabia as coming about not because of religious fatwa or government decree, but more because of the change of society itself.

And I used to use the example of women with a job. “Who is the most prized woman in Saudi Arabia?” It is a woman with a job. Her parents rely on her income if she gets suitors because they want her to marry them, as she has an independent income from them. Her siblings look up to her because they want to emulate her, and so forth. That change did not come about because of religious fatwa or because of government decree but because of people’s needs and requirements. It simply changed. And so society became more amenable and other things like that happened. So this is where I think the Kingdom is today. Although the government as I said in my presentation, has been active in promoting reforms, the society also is responding positively to these reforms.

[SUSRIS] You have talked in the past about the nationalization of the work force, saying you couldn’t understand that in a country that employed millions of foreign workers why there was an unemployment problem. Is progress being made?

[Prince Turki] I hear from the Minister of Labor that in the past year they have managed to employ more than 250,000 young Saudis because of Nitaqat. His numbers come from the social welfare organization, the place where people register when they get jobs. The fact that this many people had been hired over the past year is remarkable. You know 250,000 is not an insignificant number in Saudi Arabia. But we still need to do more.

For the life of me, you see these railroad projects in the Kingdom – north, south, east, west, holy sites railroads. These are employing thousands of people. How do they not absorb Saudis in them? It is unacceptable? There is the expansion of the holy mosque in Mecca and now in Madinah, literally employing, at all levels, whether managerial or sub-managerial or labor or whatever. Let’s say, for arguments sake that there are two million Saudis out of work, at least half of that number can be employed in just these projects that are coming on stream and undertaken now, let alone the other private enterprises. There are the housing projects, 500,000 housing units being built by the government in five years. That should also absorb some of the people out of work, if they’re seeking a job. I think the government gets blamed by critics whether internally or externally over issues like that there is a point made by people who say, the jobs are there. If people want to go and find work, they can find it. It is not that it is closed to them.

[SUSRIS] There are large numbers, tens of thousands, of Saudi students in the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, who are returning to the Kingdom. In terms of new points of view, Western views, how well are they being received in the Kingdom. When I sent my son off to college he came back with some strange ideas.

[Prince Turki] I am a product of that program. [Laughter] When my parents sent me to the United States they obviously knew that I would come back different than if they had kept me there. But Saudis have welcomed the changes and encouraged their children to do that. So I see no particular difficulty in reconciling people coming here and then going back and finding difficulty either with parents or with other members of society.

And you know one of the things about this Abdullah Scholarship program which I find equally interesting is that not only is it coeducational – because it’s both men and women, but the dependents who come with the scholarship students get an education as well. Whether it is children who are brought with their parents, or the husband, or the brother or the sister or the mother, they are also becoming educated, whether they like it or not, in a different way of life and having to deal with different situations than they would otherwise face if they stayed in the Kingdom.

[SUSRIS] Another byproduct is they are ambassadors for their country.

[Prince Turki] Oh, absolutely. Dr. John Duke Anthony at the conference [AUSPC 2012] talked about empathy and receiving foreigners here and educating them and about Americans going there to be educated. This is something that we should work on. The Kingdom now has more than 40 universities, government and private. And they can absorb non-Saudi students, because of the building programs that have been brought to fruition and the campuses have the capacity. So there should be more encouragement of non-Saudis coming from abroad to study. There are programs in the United States for study abroad that should include Saudi Arabia.

[SUSRIS] Thank you again.

HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud

Prince Turki is Chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and is one of the founders of the King Faisal Foundation. He served as the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United States of America from September 13, 2005 until February 2, 2007. He also serves as a member of the Boards of Trustees of the International Crisis Group and the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies and is co-chair of the C100 Group, which has been affiliated with the World Economic Forum since 2003. Prince Turki was appointed an Advisor in the Royal Court in 1973. From 1977 to 2001, he served as Director General of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the Kingdom’s main foreign intelligence service. In 2002, he was appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland by then Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz.

Born on February 15, 1945 in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki began his schooling at the Taif Model Elementary and Intermediate School. In 1963, he graduated from the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey and subsequently pursued undergraduate studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The King Faisal International Prizes, awarded by the King Faisal Foundation, are presented to “dedicated men and women whose contributions make a positive difference.” These annual prizes, which are awarded in five fields of endeavor – Service to Islam, Islamic Studies, Arabic Language and Literature, Science, and Medicine – have been likened, for the Arab and Islamic worlds, as similar in stature to, and nearly as coveted as, the more renowned and longer established annual Nobel Prizes. The King Faisal International Prizes, in addition to being bestowed upon Arabs and Muslims, have been granted to outstanding achievers from virtually all corners of the world.

For more information: www.kff.com

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