New Regional Conditions: A Saudi View – Prince Turki AlFaisal

Published: March 12, 2014

Editor’s Note:

Prince Turki AlFaisal continued to add to the dialogue about Saudi foreign affairs with an address on the campus of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, yesterday. Prince Turki, Chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh and former Saudi Ambassador to the United States (2005-2007), spoke on the subject of “Saudi Arabia’s Views on Today’s Middle East.” In his remarks yesterday he addressed Riyadh’s concerns about the many crises and challenges surrounding the Kingdom: Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, and Israel-Palestine. His overall theme was that, “Stability is the way to progress”:

“Saudi Arabia firmly believes that peace in the region, and a conclusion to various longstanding, conflict-resolution efforts is our primary objective. This peace will only be achieved through cooperation that is built on trust, dialogue and engagement. This is why Saudi Arabia will continue to take the lead in negotiating between and with conflicting parties and nations. Furthermore, the Kingdom firmly believes that the most vital security issue is progress through sustained economic development. There must be economic, political, and social progress for the people and of the governments of the Middle East so that peace, not conflict is clearly seen as the gateway to prosperity.”

In December Prince Turki talked with SUSRIS at his office in Riyadh. In addition to a tour d’horizon of national security challenges he addressed, what were at the time, tensions between Riyadh and Washington over policy, especially vis a vis Iran and Syria. When asked about the public airing of differences he said, “The fact that we can say these things to each other, even in public, is a sign of the strength of the relationship.” He previously told SUSRIS when asked about the ups and downs in the relationship, “I think it’s a sign of the strength of the relationship, that we can have differences in opinion as important as they may be and still continue to have a very strong economic and social and human relationship with the United States.”

Today we provide for your consideration Prince Turki AlFaisal’s remarks yesterday at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Stephen Hanson, Vice Provost for International Affairs and Prince Turki Al-Faisal
Stephen Hanson, Vice Provost for International Affairs and Prince Turki Al-Faisal


HRH Prince Turki AlFaisal
King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies

Keynote Speech

New Regional Conditions: A Saudi View
The College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, Virginia

Remarks as prepared

Thank you for inviting me to speak at William and Mary.

People Prince Turki AlFaisal at William and MarySaudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam, a religion that has today an estimated 1.2 billion adherents. Saudi Arabia represents over 20% of the combined GDP of the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region (and over a quarter of the Arab World’s GDP) making it the economic engine of the region and an effective partner and member of the G20. The Saudi stock market represents over 50% of the entire stock market capitalization of the MENA region and the listed Saudi companies make up 5 of the top 10 companies in the region with the top two slots being the Saudi conglomerates, Aramco and SABIC. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA), the Kingdom’s central bank, is the world’s third largest holder of net foreign assets managing about $850 billion and there are holdings of $500 billion in private hands. Last but not least, Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s national oil company, is the world’s largest producer and exporter of petroleum and has by far the world’s largest sustained production capacity infrastructure at about 12.5 million barrels-per-day and also has the world’s largest spare capacity currently estimated at about 2.5 million barrels-per-day or about 90% of global unused capacity.

A look at our neighbors reveals significant challenges that fall under the rubric of my first over-ridding theme – change and no change. The unchanging factors are history and geography. Whatever occurred yesterday is unchangeable today and forever. The geographic location of Saudi Arabia is equally unchanging. Our neighbors are permanently situated by our side. We have to deal with them as they have to deal with us.

On the side of change, our overall objective, vis-a-vis other nations, is to strengthen our allies in the region and beyond and to assist in whatever way we can to help our neighbors maintain stability. Saudi Arabia firmly believes that peace in the region, and a conclusion to various longstanding, conflict-resolution efforts is our primary objective. This peace will only be achieved through cooperation that is built on trust, dialogue and engagement. This is why Saudi Arabia will continue to take the lead in negotiating between and with conflicting parties and nations. Furthermore, the Kingdom firmly believes that the most vital security issue is progress through sustained economic development. There must be economic, political, and social progress for the people and of the governments of the Middle East so that peace, not conflict is clearly seen as the gateway to prosperity. Stability is the way to progress. The upheavals of the last three years, no matter how well camouflaged under the headings of “democracy”, “human rights”, and “reform”, nonetheless, have interrupted the economies of the afflicted countries, as in Egypt, caused internal strife and the withering of central authority, as in Libya, and civil war with ethnic and sectarian cleansing, as in Syria. Yemen, Tunisia, and Bahrain are all, still, a work in progress. For the Kingdom, working to restabilize these countries is of vital national interest.

People Prince Turki AlFaisal William and Mary College President W. Taylor Reveley IIIPrince Turki Al Faisal at the College of William
and Mary with President W. Taylor Reveley III

The first issue, without preference to any prioritizing, is Iran. Since the Iranian revolution, the leadership, there, has assumed a pugilist’s stance towards the world community, while we assume an embracing stance. Saudi Arabia is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the birthplace of Islam, and as such it is the eminent leader of the wider Muslim world. Iran portrays itself as the leader of not just the minority Shiite world, but of all Muslim revolutionaries interested in standing up to the West.

Map Saudi Iran GreenIn addition to these differences, Saudi Arabia has two other concerns about Iran. First, it is in our interest that the Iranian leadership does not develop a nuclear weapon, for their doing so will make nuclear arms proliferation, in the Middle East, the norm. I have suggested that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members should carefully weigh all options, including acquiring a nuclear deterrent, if the Iranian leadership succeed in building one. This is why, through various initiatives, we are sending messages to them that it is their right, as it is any nation’s right, and as we ourselves are doing, to develop a civilian nuclear program, but that trying to parlay that program into nuclear weapons is a dead end, and that wiser choices will result in wider riches.

Sanctions, alone, are not deterring the Iranian leadership from reaching their goal. Hence, that is why we look upon the current P5+1 negotiation with the Iranians on the dismantling of their nuclear enrichment program with hope, but with a clear eye toward potential Iranian deceptions. If recent history is any indicator, then we should expect a long drawn out process that will end up as a deep polarizing debate between the delusional regressive and the progressive elements within Iran. The Iranian leadership will hold out to the end their right to unmonitored nuclear enrichment capabilities. Therefore, the Kingdom’s firm view is that the Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction is the surest way to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. Such a Zone must have a guarantee by the five permanent members of the Security Council to provide a nuclear security umbrella for the members of the Zone as well as their guarantee for military sanctions against any member of the Zone seen to be developing weapons of mass destruction.

The other concern we need to address is the Iranian leadership’s meddling and destabilizing efforts in the countries with Shia majorities, Iraq and Bahrain, as well as those countries with significant minority Shia communities, such as Kuwait, Lebanon and Yemen; and it still occupies the three Emirati islands in the Gulf and refuses to talk about them. This must end. Saudi Arabia will oppose any and all of Iran’s actions in other countries because it is Saudi Arabia’s position that Iran has no right to meddle in the internal affairs of Arab countries. Indeed, Iran takes this position as well – it is very sensitive about other countries meddling in its affairs. The Kingdom expects Iran to practice what it preaches. The Kingdom is equally hopeful that Mr. Rouhani’s election will alter the course of the Iranian leadership from meddling in Arab affairs to cooperation and engagement.

One cannot discuss Iran without also mentioning Iraq. Iraq has a great history as a pivotal member of the Arab community. It has been, and it can still be, an important force in the Arab world. It is a founding member of the Arab League, the United Nations, and OPEC, possessing vast natural resource wealth, and may someday be a major player in the energy markets. It sits at the heart of the Middle East and has a capable and diverse population. But much of its potential is being crushed by Iranian interference. Be it preferable to us or not, it is a fact in the region that an Iraq that once waged a horridly bloody war against Iran has now become a significant arena of growing Iranian influence, thanks to the aftermath of the catastrophic US invasion. There are people and groups in Iraq that are, as much as they deny it, completely beholden to Iran, and that is not only unacceptable, but it is bad for the future of an ethnically and religiously diverse country. It is our goal that Iraq remains an active participant of the Arab world and throws off these destructive foreign influences.

This is the main reason we continue to maintain the same distance from all Iraqi factions. However, let me point out that, because we still have serious, deep-seated reservations about the formation of the current Iraqi government, we are the only country not to have sent a resident ambassador to Iraq. What is the cause of these reservations? Let me give you one example. In the weeks preceding the formation of the current Iraqi government, there was a certain Iranian general who was in Baghdad negotiating on behalf of the current Iraqi Prime Minister with the Shia and Kurdish groups, seeking their support for the new mandate. These are the kinds of actions that are not missed by Saudi Arabia; we cannot agree with them, and we will do everything in our power to make them end. In short, it is the Kingdom’s full intention to continue to work with the people of Iraq to assure that their country becomes a stable, positive, and independent member of the Arab world. The daily killings, there, have reached, if not surpassed, the numbers of deaths recorded during the height of the insurgency against the American occupation. Mr. Maliki’s policy is the main reason for that, and we see him, now, stoking the fires of sectarian conflict in order to win support from his erstwhile Shi’ah constituency.

Click for larger mapI will now briefly address the current situation with one of Saudi Arabia’s closest neighbors, Yemen. For the Kingdom, and, indeed, the rest of the world, an increasingly unstable Yemen represents a very real security threat due to the potential for terror cells to take root there. This rough, rugged southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula, with a population of over 25 million, has been an arena for Al Qaeda operations since Osama bin Laden established training camps there in the 1990’s, and according to intelligence sources, Al Qaeda’s influence is disquieting in the country. This is largely due to the fact that the Yemeni central government’s authority in the mountainous areas outside the capital and other cities is not up to par.

What are our plans vis-a-vis this volatile situation? We have, in essence, a tri-partite approach. The Kingdom has had a decades’ long program of economic and financial support for the Yemeni people. It is now on hold until the country settles down. We are strengthening our borders to prevent Yemeni refugees and Al Qaeda terrorists from crossing into our country while also increasing our counter-intelligence efforts to attempt to pinpoint and destroy Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Our work with the ruling interim government and the world community to eliminate the terrorist threat continues. Unfortunately, one of the challenges facing the interim government is the rebellion of the Houthi shi’ah sect, in the North of the country. It is fuelled and sustained by Iranian financial and armed support; but the local tribal groups are putting up a strong resistance. One of the successes, in Yemen, has been the approval of the national dialogue proposals which will take effect immediately. Yemen will become a federal state, with power and revenue sharing between the states.

Let us now turn to the Kingdom’s approach to the volatile and important nations of Lebanon and Syria. Due to the raging civil war next door in Syria, Lebanon is very much on the brink of its own civil war, as Hizbollah continues to push its agenda regardless of law and order. With the collapse of the Mikati government, we see to what extremes Hizbollah is willing to go, literally risking the very foundations of the nation, to prevent the Assad regime from being overthrown and stopping any scrutiny of an international tribunal whose only objective is bringing fair justice upon those who perpetrated the series of horrible assassinations. Hizbollah’s reckless interference in Syria is further destabilizing Lebanon; witness the recent car bombs in the Hizbollah neighborhoods and in Tripoli. Saudi Arabia believes that law and order must prevail in Lebanon and supports all efforts to neutralize Hizbollah’s intervention in Syria and bring their leaders to justice for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The new Prime Minister, Tammam Salam, has a tough task ahead of him. The Kingdom has extended all the support it can to ease the Lebanese people’s path to stability.

The Kingdom is providing financial aid to Lebanon. This is a serious effort to rebuild a stronger, more stable Lebanon, and an attempt to roll back the influence of Iran’s leadership. We have for years pushed for the disarming of Tehran-backed Hizbollah and supported the government with over $5 billion in financial and military support for the Lebanese Army, and we will continue to do so.

In Syria, the past three years have proven absolutely disastrous. Gut-wrenching images of unspeakable, indiscriminate violence against civilians in Syria have shocked the world. By the latest United Nations estimates, over 170,000 Syrians, including many children, have lost their lives as a result of the Assad regime’s criminal behavior. There are, now, over three million Syrian refugees in bordering countries and more than six million displaced persons inside Syria. Whether through the murder of peaceful protesters, the shelling of residential quarters, the execution of soldiers who refuse to open fire on their countrymen, or the use of chemical weapons, a picture has emerged of a regime systematically defying even the most basic international moral and legal standards. Unless the world is content to see these massacres continue, the Syrian regime, along with its instruments of oppression, must be decisively removed from power. The shameful way that the world community accepts the impunity of the butcher of Syria is a blot on the conscience of the world. The dithering of leadership in the West and the callous, cynical, and cavalier attitude in supporting Bashar by Russia and China are a stigma that they will bear forever. The Iranian leadership’s support for Assad, from the beginning, is a criminal act and they should be tried in the International Criminal Court. Geneva two has failed. The regime continues to inflict the most barbarous acts against its people; devising these fire barrels that they lob from helicopters against innocent civilians, even while they stand in line to buy bread. How anyone can believe that Assad will voluntarily cede power to an interim government, I don’t know. The people’s resistance has been magnificent, and they sustain themselves in spite of their meager resources. They are fighting against a multitude of enemies; Bashar’s butchers, Hizbollah’s bloody mercenaries, the Iranian revolutionary guards, the Shi’ah terrorist militias from Iraq; and the crazy terrorist groups called Jabhat al Nusrah and the ISIS, who, like the worst bacteria that they are, collect on the festering wound of Syria. The Kingdom is doing all it can to help the Syrian people. But the world community remains inert and supine. This cannot stand. The consequences will affect us all when these bacteria return to where they came from and infect us all.

Egypt holds a special place in Saudi security interests. It is the largest Arab country with close and historically deep and significant ties to the Kingdom. King Abdullah held the closest of relations with President Mubarak for over thirty years. Abandoning him or any close ally during a revolutionary uprising was not and will never be a policy option for the Kingdom, which must uphold and defend its values. However, once President Mubarak resigned and the Egyptian people expressed their will, King Abdullah not only recognized the new reality, but he also extended the hand of friendship and $4 billion dollars in financial aid to the new leadership. But this new leadership, entirely beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood, proved unable, incapable and incompetent to govern a country such as Egypt. After barely a year in power, the majority of the Egyptian people withdrew support from them and demanded a referendum on the viability of the President’s legitimacy. When he refused, they turned to the streets in the largest ever human demonstrations, anywhere. These millions asked the armed forces to restore legitimacy and dignity and they did. They transferred power to a newly appointed temporary civilian government to save the Egyptian state from disaster. King Abdullah was the first leader to congratulate the Egyptian leadership and has led the regional push to support this action. Saudi Arabia unconditionally authorized $5 billion (the first tranche of several aid programs to be announced) in grants, loans, and deposits to Egypt’s emerging government, which stands in stark comparison to the conditional loans that the US and Europe have promised and keep threatening to freeze. A new constitution has been approved and presidential and parliamentary elections are coming, according to the roadmap that is in place. The Muslim Brotherhood continues to wage a terrorist campaign to disrupt the process. We must accept that some time will pass before stability reigns and all of us should hold out our hands to be helpful.

Map GCC Persian GulfNow we turn to Bahrain. This nation is geographically and historically the closest to Saudi Arabia. Right after the 1979 revolution in Iran, Khomeini began trying to export his revolution to all Muslim countries. This resulted in eruptions of violence not only in Muslim countries but also among Shia communities in other countries, including among Saudi Arabia’s own small Shia population. Those who claim that the recent disturbances were not instigated by Iran forget that Khomeini’s creation, Hizbollah in Bahrain, still exists and that Iranian propaganda broadcasts beamed at Bahrain have never ceased. Iranian officials frequently issue statements that Bahrain is a province of Iran. When King Hamad delegated his Crown Prince to negotiate with the protesters on their demands, the Kingdom publicly endorsed the negotiations and still does. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has extended a ten-year economic package of $10 billion dollars, mostly from the Kingdom. The deployment of Saudi-supported GCC troops at the request of a member country of the GCC to protect its strategic infrastructure like the oil refinery, the airport, the seaport, and economic installations is a duty that the Kingdom will always fulfill. No GCC personnel have been engaged in any action against protesters. King Hamad has continued to call for negotiations and the Kingdom continues to support that call. But let’s be clear, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will never accept that Iran take power in Bahrain. This is a fantasy if anyone, including in the West, believes that such an eventuality can happen over Saudi Arabia’s watch.

Of course, a full analysis of the Kingdom’s situation vis-a-vis the region cannot be considered complete without discussing, what is perhaps the most important issue, and that is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. As we have recently seen, Israel’s unwillingness to cease its unlawful colonization and continual refusal to grant the Palestinians their own homeland is the core reason that this conflict continues. There is no lack of proposals for peace, many of them completely rational and fair. Indeed, the only viable one today remains The Arab Peace Initiative, originally outlined by King Abdullah in 2002. It was even recently used as the basis for President Obama’s call on Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders and the establishment of a viable and contiguous Palestine bordering Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.

The Kingdom continues to urge Israel to take the necessary steps toward peace and justice. It also continues to support the Palestinian Authority in its attempts to build lasting institutions for its people, and it remains, counter to recent accusations, the world’s largest contributor to the Palestinian Authority. The Kingdom has delivered hundreds of millions of dollars for rebuilding and developing Palestine – money that is being spent on schools, roads and security. Funding, engagement, and a call for a two-state solution remain the centre pieces of the Saudi position. The Kerry effort to bring an accord during this year, while laudable, is still a shot in the dark. President Obama has met with Netanyahu and will shortly meet with Abbas. His pushing of Kerry’s efforts is vital to convince Netanyahu to reach an accord.

And on the all-important issue of statehood, King Abdullah has called upon the world community to support the establishment of a Palestinian state. As such Saudi Arabia stands behind those UN member nations who wish to make an official UN declaration recognizing the state of Palestine and believes with them that Palestinian statehood is not a matter of if, but when.

Let me conclude by reaffirming that Saudi Arabia has a vital responsibility and a global role that is much larger than just the confines of the Arab world. We are critical to the well-being of the global economy. We see our work in that area as part of our overall role in the broader Islamic world. We hope to increase our peaceful foreign engagements with nations in the name of improving our common humanitarian situations, and also to foster a sense of Islam as a religion of collaboration and progress. Through the King Abdullah Center for Cultural and Religious Dialogue, now established in Vienna, Saudi Arabia extends the hand of friendship to all peoples of the world. But we also need to work harder to ensure a tangible effect and to make sure that it brings stability, peace, and prosperity to all.

Remarks as prepared


About Prince Turki AlFaisal

Prince Turki Al-FaisalPrince 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.

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