Policy Amidst Regional Instability: A Conversation with Prince Turki Al Faisal

Published: November 22, 2014

Editor’s Note:

This week Prince Turki al Faisal provided the Saudi perspective on the regional instability racking the Middle East. In remarks at the John F. Kennedy School of Government Belfer Center in Cambridge he gave historical context to a legacy where “few Middle Eastern nation states have the opportunity to grow into strong, stable countries with civil wars, military coups, and refugee crises filling .. headlines.” In a presentation moderated by distinguished former diplomat Nicholas Burns, Harvard Kennedy School Professor of International Relations, Prince Turki stated the, “Middle East .. is a byway and a battleground now and it always was.” He posed the question,”Who exactly is fighting for and against? It is not always clear. What do these new developments mean for the future of the Middle East and for those who suffer in its most embattled nations?”

Today we provide our transcript produced from the Belfer Center podcast for your consideration of Prince Turki’s remarks on this important topic. The transcript is followed by links to separate recordings from the Q&A session. We also commend to your attention his remarks at last month’s Arab-US Policymakers Conference in Washington which provided a comprehensive view of the unfolding regional crises. [Link]

Prince Turki al Faisal is former Saudi Ambassador to the United States and to the United Kingdom. He was the long serving Director General of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), Saudi Arabia’s main foreign intelligence service, from 1977 until 2001.

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Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policy Amidst Regional Instability: A Conversation with Prince Turki Al Faisal

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Cambridge, Massachusetts
November 18, 2014

[Prince Turki al Faisal] [Greeting in Arabic] Ladies and gentlemen, it’s nice to be back at the Kennedy School and Belfer Center. My hosts Nic Burns and Graham Allison are always generous not only with their hospitality but with their time and consideration.

When I was taking this paper out I couldn’t help but remember an incident that happened to the late King Fahd at the Islamic Summit conference in Mecca, the first summit conference for Muslims in Mecca.

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He goes up to the podium to give a speech and you could see him looking in his pocket, everywhere. There’s nothing there. And he’s looking up around. Fortunately our Foreign Minister had his own copy of the speech. I thought when I pulled it out it might be the wrong speech. Anyway. Thank you very much, and as I said it’s a great pleasure.

When waves of unrest began to strike the Arab world in 2011, I was asked the same question, not always in good faith, at every event. What did I think of the Arab Spring? My answer never changed.

It is too early to judge the outcome of the events. Time proved that that answer was correct, and those who were in a hurry to make assumptions had to change their views every couple of months.

It has been a while since I have heard the expression Arab Spring. Today, when we look out at the Arab world, the promises of the flowering of spring seem far away.

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Throughout the past century the Arab Middle East has gone through many cycles of unrest followed by disarray. In the colonial period, the Middle East was a byway in the battleground for the great powers. The arena’s natural resources and rich history made it a site for power struggles and the arbitrary drawing and redrawing of national boundaries.

After the global trauma of World War II led to the death of the colonial system, the Arab Middle East reorganized around a series of nation states whose flimsy beginnings, which were inherited from their colonial masters, made some of them incubators for strong armed leaders and oppressive regimes.

During the Cold War, the oil producing states of the Middle East, in particular those with socialist leanings and to lesser extents those like us, found themselves alternatively bullied, supported, and undermined by the Soviet Union and the United States in a global competition that culminated in American hegemony or as someone corrected me hegemony.

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Click for video of Prince Turki at the Oct 2014 Arab-US Policymakers Conference
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Through decades of political turmoil and an economic environment still vulnerable to the colonial legacy of exploitation, few Middle Eastern nation states have the opportunity to grow into strong, stable countries with civil wars, military coups, and refugee crises filling more headlines than the slower developing stability and freedom.

Today, the Middle East is in peril by new trans-national threat. ISIS, or as I call it in Arabic Fa’esh [laughter] It’s swift rise to public attention, the spread of civilian conflict it has left in its wake, and its ability to combine murderous ideology and youth appeal have thrown the enormity of the radical threat into stark relief. But radicalism will not thrive if the sanction of hatred and poor governance had not already given it a foothold in the region.

Across Iraq and the Levant and into the Arabian Peninsula, crumbling dictatorships have given hope to a new generation of ambitious actors who think they can exploit sectarian tensions to further their political careers. So far they have been proven right.

Iraq and Syria are crowded with sectarian politicians, sectarian entrepreneurs, sectarian military commanders. Even would be caliphs who speak the language of ancient religious zealots and preach the righteousness of violence and oppression.

The Sunni-Shia tension is a match, and I mean that not a match of football, but a match that you can light up. The failing states of the Middle East are a pile of dry wood that has been lit.

In the past twenty years the U.S. has embraced its role as the primary foreign influence in Middle Eastern affairs, serving alternatively as an advisor, an investor, an invader, and a nation builder. After many failed projects and a great deal of fatigue, not to mention new challenges to its global dominance, the U.S. is renegotiating its role in the region.

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The Middle East, as I said, is a byway and a battleground now and it always was. But who exactly is fighting for and against? It is not always clear. What do these new developments mean for the future of the Middle East and for those who suffer in its most embattled nations?

It is tempting to dismiss conflicting reports of cries for help out of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen as the sounds of chaos, but many of the major regional problems in the Middle East are traceable to a few common root causes. In confronting them we must pay attention not just to the existence of violence itself, but to the types of violence that currently plague the region and the world, and actions that the violent actors use to justify themselves and promote their cause. And the reports of violence are no worse and devastating.

As recently as the past ten days over one hundred civilians were killed in inter-tribal sectarian clashes in Yemen, a country that has been edging ever closer to the brink of civil war since the resignation of President Saleh in 2012. Yemen’s infrastructure is in shambles. There are reliable estimates that nearly half the population lacks sufficient access to clean water, and that over ten million citizens suffer from lack of food.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been able to manipulate the country’s poverty in service of its own goals. The counterterrorism efforts have rendered Yemeni citizens doubly vulnerable without fixing the problem. Despite the fact that drone strikes have killed hundreds of civilian Yemenis in the past decade, the AQAP, far from neutralized, appears to be preparing all out civil war against Houthi fighters.

The Houthis, with internal and external support, are threatening the stability in Yemen, weakening the central government, spreading sectarian enmity, and taking the country to the brink of bloody civil war. As Yemen suffers in relative obscurity, the world has watched Syria self-destruct under the tight and deadly grasp of President Bashar al Assad.

During the Arab unrest of 2012 and 2011, hopes were high that Assad like Mubarak and Saleh would cave to pressure and resign his post, paving the way for better governance of a nation cast off from its Baathist authoritarian roots. Instead the country has spent the past four years tortured by a despot’s selfish drive for power, and has lost nearly everything that its ordinary citizens used to call dear.

While no one knows the true extent of the casualties of the Syrian war, the consensus is that it exceeds two hundred thousand deaths. The U.N. currently keeps track of over three million Syrian refugees and about ten million displaced persons.

News and video sites endlessly broadcast evidence of new bombings and shellings, a sad testament to a once proud nation collapsing in on itself. The hostile, murderous government and million of citizens in search of shelter and protection. Is it a wonder that Syria has become a breeding ground for terrorist violence, that once dormant were at least manageable sectarian tensions have become points of refuge for the vulnerable and battle cries for the bloodthirsty?

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Since 2011, Syria has been the perfect ground zero for Fa’esh to fuel its radicalist army and perfect its strategy. It is only natural that Fa’esh saw that Iraq would be the next stop in its long predatory march. Like Syria, Iraq is a country with a mixed Sunni-Shia population and a history of sectarian tensions. And Iraq too is a nation struggling to emerge from the shadow of a dictatorship and the ravages of a long, draining, often pointless war which cost the lives of over one hundred thousand citizens. Its resources are depleted and its pretensions to a fair-minded coalition government ring hollow.

Like the ever-shifting lines on the colonial map of the Middle East, the boundaries between and within Iraq and Syria are blurring, fading, being drawn and redrawn. These countries are on the verge of a transformation that the international community failed to predict and is now scrambling to forestall.

Post-World War II, American laid a heavy hand in Middle Eastern affairs. Post-September 11th, it has constructed a foreign policy identity around counterterrorism, state-building, and the war on terror. It also has many decades of investment as a major consumer and power broker in the oil industry, but in recent years the United States has had to take a hard look at its Middle Eastern legacy.

The war in Iraq has cost the U.S. roughly a trillion dollars and over four thousand combat deaths. Over a decade of engagement in what was once hailed as a quick, easy regime change has left the United States without the public support necessary to commit its vast military resources to subsequent conflicts.

The shadow of the Vietnam syndrome and now it can be called the Afghanistan-Iraq syndrome, the civil unrest created by the country’s investment in a vaguely defined unwinnable war hangs over American global policy. Besides, the United States is not the undisputed leader it once was. China and Russia have emerged as regional influences with a great deal of clout and policy axes to grind. The two countries made news two years ago when they vetoed the Arab League proposal to bring a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war, and in May – last May – when they again vetoed a U.N. resolution to transfer Syria to the international criminal court.

Following the Syrian uprising, Russia has positioned itself as a firm friend of the Assad regime, and by extension of its ally in crime, Iran. Since then, deadlock between the global powers has delayed action in Syria, a scenario with echoes of the days when the dynasties of Europe would carry out their squabbles in the region.

Sectarian groups can sense international gridlock and are eager to take advantage of it. As international action ground to a halt, terrorism had time to fester and to spread.

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Unfortunately American policy in the Middle East is nothing less than floundering. After almost four years of letting Bashar kill hundreds of thousands of civilians standing by Malaki’s sectarian government until Iraq turned into chaos, fighting with or in benefit of sectarian Shia militias in Iraq and Yemen along with the IRGC, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the American coalition that is bombing ISIS, or Fa’esh as I call it, in Syria is a welcome step.

But it is dealing with the symptoms not with the disease. Curing the disease lies with removing Bashar, as Malaki was removed in order to allow for the formation of an inclusive national unity government that can take on the terrorists.

What does this bleak picture mean for those trying to forge a way forward in the Middle East? How can the GCC countries negotiate the many diplomatic challenges, including a potential détente with Iran that could either be rolled into sectarian resentments and power blocking or perhaps even to avoid such an eventuality.

First, it is necessary to understand and adapt to a new era of international cooperation. Liberal interventionism is officially a failed idea. The U.S. can no longer attempt state building projects. It lacks the wealth, the confidence, and the drive to follow through.

The global community cannot be relied upon to place the interests of suffering peoples above its own political concerns. Aside from military intervention, which is a blunt instrument that must be used sparingly, the GCC countries understand that the disease of the Middle East will only be healed from within. They must focus on solutions and not retribution and the settling of scores. The center of threats to the Middle Eastern security are failing states whose abuses and bad governance breed sectarianism and radicalism, two sides of the same coin. Each ideology seeks to divide those who would work together, to dominate and control those who should be protected.

The challenges posed by groups like al Qaeda, Fa’esh, Hezbollah, and the Houthis have echoes in the past, but they present new challenges incomparable with anything we have had to deal with previously. As we have seen, sectarianism and radicalism are symptoms of an underlying disease. They are boils that emerge when the fever of lawlessness and oppression take over a country. Their antidotes are stability, safety, and freedom.

The GCC can help administer to those affected by giving levelheaded Iraqis and Syrians the tools they need to build solid governments and economies. We must also arm those moderates in the Syrian opposition and the Iraqi Arab Sunni tribes who are brave enough to fight for a good government in their homeland. Investing in those moderate freedom fighters who have an interest in fostering good government in their home.

Once the fighting has stopped we must support their efforts at coalition building. Furthermore, we must lay the foundation for the next generation by building educational initiatives and providing job opportunities that give youth pride in themselves and their achievements. Religious discourse that bars this elective and deceitful preaching of pseudo-sheiks and clerics will keep the youth from crossing towards the highway of terrorism.

However, there are some bright spots in countries affected by the so-called Arab Spring. After many seasons of turmoil, Egypt is taking steps towards stability. Tunisia has recovered well from the upheaval of the Arab unrest. And Bahrain is about to go through a promising round of parliamentary elections. All of these developments signal the possibility that the Arab world has just as much potential to nurture good governance and politics as any region in the world.

Terrorist groups like Fa’esh recruit young militants by telling them stories about past years of Arab-Islamic glory, by promising that they can recapture the splendors of ancient Baghdad and the beauty of the Islamic golden age by using weapons and violence.

They are right about the possibility for a future Arab time, but they are dead wrong about the way forward. We will build a future that honors the past through respecting human dignity and encouraging human potential. Neutralizing the major threats to Middle Eastern citizens can take years, but the next step is to move from the preponderance of violence to freedom, safety, and progress.

Radicals will not thrive in a moderate, well-functioning society. They will be hard-pressed to find allies and sympathizers.

With patient work to enact grassroots changes there is hope that the Arab Spring will blossom into reality.

Thank you.

Source: Belfer Center

Photos: Belfer Center Facebook Page

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Verbatim transcript by SUSRIS from the Belfer Center podcast audio file.

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About HRH Prince Turki Al-Faisal:

turkiPrince Turki was Director General of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), Saudi Arabia’s main foreign intelligence service, from 1977 until 2001. In 2002 he was appointed as the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, a position he served until 2005, when he was appointed as Ambassador to the United States. He retired in February 2007.

A Founder and Trustee of the King Faisal Foundation, Prince Turki is also the Chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. In addition, he is a Trustee of the Oxford Islamic Center at The University of Oxford and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) at Georgetown University, as well as being a Commissioner at the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Prince Turki received an honorary PhD in Law from the University of Ulster in 2010 and has been a visiting Distinguished Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

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