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The Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, Chatham House, hosted a conversation with Prince Turki al-Faisal on March 18, 2015, titled “The Middle East in 2015: A View from the Gulf,” in which the former Ambassador to the UK and the US shared his perspectives on the top issues of the day. The event was moderated by Dr. Robin Niblett, Director of Chatham House, and included a Q & A period with members. We are pleased to share the transcript, provided by Chatham House, with you today for your consideration. You will find many more articles and interviews about and with Prince Turki on these topics and more.
Prince Turki at Chatham House on Issues of the Day
Transcript from Chatham House
[Robin Niblett] Welcome to Chatham House, delighted that you are able to be with us today for as what you can see is going to be a conversation, there is no lectern here, a conversation with His Royal Highness, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Sa’ud.
Prince Turki, welcome back to Chatham House. I know you’ve been here on a number of occasions but mostly for roundtables that we’ve had the pleasure of doing with you, especially in your capacity as chairman of King Faisal Centre for Research in Islamic Studies, with whom our colleagues in our Middle East and North Africa programme have had the opportunity of undertaking a number of studies.
Prince Turki, as many of you know, one of the, I think, best informed members of the Saudi royal family, somebody who has played a very important role in their international relations, in their external affairs, having served for many years as the director general of the general intelligence directorate in Saudi Arabia but then also as ambassador here in the United Kingdom from 2002 to 2005 and then ambassador to Washington from 2005 to 2007, at a particularly intense time, I think it would be fair to say, in international relations around that period.
What we’re going to do today, as I said, have a conversation rather than speeches. This is, perhaps, self evidently on the record, just to remind you, Prince Turki, although at Chatham House this is on the record, we are also actually live streaming this conversation to our members who are and guests who are not here with us today.
We’ll start off by having a discussion and then we will open it up and get some thoughts and questions from our members and guests here within Chatham House itself, within the room.
And so thank you very much for joining us. Let me start with, perhaps the most obvious point to start with, given that your visit has now coincided with what people are saying was an unexpected result in the Israeli elections and an election which ended up with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the closing moments, really, almost of the election, explicitly making a commitment that during his premiership, under the current circumstances, there would not be a Palestinian state.
The Arab peace initiative, which you and others helped develop and which was coming back into the frame to a certain extent, now looks like it’s been put back on ice.
Could I just start with you on this question: do you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, therefore, going to remain a festering wound in the region for all the communities involved there or do you think it becomes immediately more dangerous in what is already a very dangerous region? We’ve been living with this for a long time but is this something that now you worry, as you know the region, think about it, could trigger a more dangerous context?
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[Prince Turki] First of all, thank you very much for hosting me. I see many familiar faces here and it’s good that they’re all in one place and I can say hello to all of them and thank you for being here.
I don’t think Mr Netanyahu really changed much by his statement because ever since he’s been prime minister, he’s resisted the idea of a Palestinian state coming into being and he manoeuvred and politicized and criticized and did all sorts of dealings and wheelings to prevent the statehood coming to the Palestinians. So his coming out and saying it is not something that I find surprising, especially in the election and as a means of, as they were saying in the media today, of galvanizing his base, which is, basically, a very right-wing part of the Israeli public.
Whether it is more dangerous or not, I think it continues to be a very dangerous development. I don’t think we can say that it is more dangerous than his actions previously because his actions previously were very dangerous. Denying the Palestinians the right to self-determination and all that comes with that is a dangerous prospect and I think on both sides, the extremists now are taking advantage of this and I think on the Arab side, the extremists are very happy that Mr Netanyahu has come out the way that he has because now they can turn to the rest of us and say, ‘You see? We told you. He is not serious; Israel is not going to give up anything and is going to continue with the settlement policy and, therefore, we have been justified all this time not to come into the peace process.’
And on the Israeli side, of course, I’m sure the settlers and all the other extreme right- wingers are also extremely happy because it shows that from their point of view, they’re equally justified in what they have been doing in the past. So, the danger is there; it’s going to continue and it’s going to reflect on all of us, not just the Palestinians.
[Robin Niblett] We could do a whole conversation on that part but what I think what I should do is move around topics, maybe, a little bit at the moment and let us come back and let our guests and other members ask questions later on.
Let me just take you quickly to the other key topic on the agenda at the moment, in the region, which is the push, imminently, potentially or in the coming months or weeks to achieve a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. And I know you’ve been public in your statements about your and the Saudi government’s concerns about the nature of the deal that you believe is going to emerge, one that would permit enrichment of nuclear material in Iran and I think you’ve said explicitly that you feel this will be destabilizing because it will kick off some type of competitive race within the region.
Maybe you could say a word or two about that but also, if I may ask, Prince Turki, what’s the alternative? What are you, your colleagues in Saudi Arabia, others who maybe agree with you, what are you proposing that would be different? What would you be doing if you were sitting in Barak Obama’s seat and pushing it on this topic of the Iranian nuclear programme?
[Prince Turki] The Americans and the Iranians have been flirting with each other and Mr Obama started the flirting in his first campaign, back in 2008, if you look back on it. You remember, he said, ‘We want to get this Iran issue off the table,’ and he’s been very consistent in that.
In 2009, when the so-called green revolution took place in Iran, he didn’t bat an eyelid then, either in expressing support of the revolutionaries or criticism of the way that they were handled by the Iranian government. And it continued. And I must say, during the interim, of course, he ratcheted up the sanctions against Iran very successfully with the other members of the Security Council, to put more pressure on Iran, which he has achieved.
But now, it seems that each side is so anxious to get over the flirtation and go towards the consummation that we’re going to have a deal and how good or how bad it is, I don’t know because we haven’t seen the details of that.
But from my view, there is an alternative and there has been an alternative on the table since 1974, presented ironically by Iran to the United Nations in the form of then a zone free of nuclear weapons. That proposition is still on the table. Now it’s become a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. And since 1995, that proposition has been at the United Nations, represented by then President Mubarak at the General Assembly meeting that year.
And two years ago, or three years ago, five years ago, 2010, the NPT Review Conference agreed to hold a session on the zone free of weapons of mass destruction in Helsinki in Finland in 2012. Unfortunately, just a couple of weeks before that session was supposed to be held, one of the convenors, the United States, declared that there wasn’t enough agreement in advance to make the session successful and, therefore, there is not going to be a session.
And since then, since that date – 2012 – there have been several meetings under the auspices of the United Nations or, to please the Israelis under other auspices, because they refuse to come under the auspices of the United Nations and those sessions, sometimes, included Israel but not Iran, other times included Iran but not Israel and so we’ve been going around in circles, presumably to find a way to hold that aborted attempt in 2012 before the next Review Conference, which is coming up next month at the United Nations for the NPT signatories.
And that, from my point of view, that is the best way to go about ensuring that there is no proliferation of the dangerous process of enriching uranium. Once you have that, you’re going to have the rest of it, eventually and the way that we understand this agreement is going to be, the base is going to be a 10 year period hiatus for the Iranians but then, after that, it’s anybody’s guess what’s going to happen. And that is going to incentivize, not just people or countries in the area but the whole world will be incentivized to compete for uranium enrichment.
And I, as a layman, not as an expert, I would rather see a lid put on all of that now, rather than wait 10 years from now when Iran, presumably, will have then the freedom to go
beyond the five, 10 or 20 per cent that they’re given in this agreement and shoot for a nuclear weapon.
[Robin Niblett] Are there security guarantees that the United States and allies could offer to a country like Saudi Arabia that would make it feel sufficiently secure for it not to be involved in enriching nuclear material for its own power and other requirements if Iran has that right? Or is it the case that Iran is able to enrich nuclear weapons and there is nothing that allies can do that would make us feel secure?
[Prince Turki] My preference for the zone is that it would a level playing field for everybody and not just Saudi Arabia or Iran but the whole area, from Iran all the way across to the Atlantic, including the Arab countries and maybe Turkey as well.
So that is where I would rather see any guarantees coming to the area by having the zone established then, and not just the United States but the permanent five members of the Security Council would then offer a nuclear security umbrella to the zone and not just to Saudi Arabia. That would be a better guarantee than any unilateral or any other formulation for a guarantee.
[Robin Niblett] Let me just keep moving on with a couple more topics, then we’ll definitely open this up. Just staying with the United States for a minute, there certainly is the impression and it has been written a lot about and, I think, colleagues from your part of the region have definitely commented on this, that they feel the United States has disengaged, at some level, from the Middle East, maybe not entirely strategically but that the choices that are made in how the United States engages are more selective; one can take Syria as an example, that whether the United States is tired of the persistent conflict in the Middle East and, at the same time, the Arab uprisings that took place initially in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, drove a bit of a wedge between our traditional allies like Saudi Arabia, that have seen the benefits of gradual reform and stability, versus the United States that felt it went with where the majority of the population seemed to want to go.
Can this relationship be… can we put Humpty Dumpty back together again? Can the level of trust that existed prior to 2011, maybe one could say prior to 2011 but, certainly, prior to 2011 be reconstituted, in your opinion?
[Prince Turki] It wasn’t just Saudi officials and I or others who commented on the United States lowering its engagement, if you like, in our part of the world. American officials have said so, including President Obama and we must take him at his word. I’m glad he didn’t put it in red line terms but that is something I think that we have to live with and there is no other solution for us.
We continue to have excellent relations with the United States as envisioned and as seen by the various contacts that we’ve had, our officials have had with President Obama. He’s made a trip to the kingdom when the late King Abdullah was still alive; twice he was in Saudi Arabia, or maybe three times, I don’t remember now and he made a special effort to come to see King Salman when he succeeded King Abdullah. And I’m sure at that level of the relationship both leaders have reached an understanding of where they want to go with the relationship.
Sitting outside that circle of leadership discussions, the United States has a credibility gap, if you like. I remember when I was growing up in the 1960s, the election at that time between Kennedy and Nixon, there was the missile gap that was supposed to exist and it turned out that it wasn’t; it was really the opposite where the US had superseded.
So maybe I’m living under false visions here. But there is a credibility gap for the United States and not just in the kingdom. I see that reflected everywhere. And that gap is going to take time to overcome and it needs action and not just words.
[Robin Niblett] And where would you like to see action?
[Prince Turki] I’d like to see action in Syria, frankly. And I think it’s not just the United States, I think the whole world community is criminally, criminally responsible for the death of more than 250,000 Syrians because of the way that they have treated with Bashar al-Assad and his regime that continues to kill Syrians.
Yesterday, in the new, I don’t know if you heard it or not but chlorine gas is now used by him on civilians, not on fighters or Fahesh or – you’ll have to wait until I explain what Fahesh is – and others in the field and I think that is unacceptable and action can be taken and I proposed publicly before that in Syria we need to have several things.
The first thing, we need to have no-fly zones on the border with Turkey and on the border with Jordan. Secondly, the coalition council that more than 130 countries recognize as being representative of the Syrian people, should move to Syrian territory under protection of the no-fly zone and act as a Syrian government in Syrian territory. And thirdly, we should offer the best support for the Free Syrian Army.
Many of you here, probably, and others discount that there is any efficacy in that. I would disagree, because in my view, the Syrian people in general, are opposed as much to Assad as they are opposed to Fahesh and al-Nusra and the other groups there. And if they saw any sign of support for the Free Syrian Army, they would galvanize their efforts and support the Free Syrian Army.
But all of these things, of course, are up to the decision makers to make and I see no way that they can be convinced, unfortunately.
[Robin Niblett] You said that most people are against Assad or, at least, wouldn’t it be the case that different people are against different groups, that in the end, even Assad is potentially seen as a better protector of the interests of his community, as he might see it and even some of the other minority communities in Syria, than any Free Syrian Army or any other group, even they’re moderate?
[Prince Turki] Well, if you look at the Syrian jails, and I haven’t but others have, there are as many Alawites in prisons, in Syrian jails as there are Sunnis, Christians, Jews or whatever.
So Assad has been very democratic and, therefore, I don’t think Assad necessarily represents protection for certain minorities, definitely not the Alawites. And so, equally, Fahesh and the other groups that operate on Syrian soil, the terrorists, they don’t represent the Syrian Sunni majority.
And that’s why I say that the majority of the people there would support the Free Syrian Army, which still maintains its non-ethnic, non-sectarian positions on all issues.
[Robin Niblett] This brings me to my last question then I’m going to open it up for those of you who’d like to ask questions. Islamic State, Daesh or as you call it, Fahesh – and I’ll let you explain why you used that term in a minute – could that act as a uniting force, it’s appearance, it’s relative success across that borderland area between Iraq and Syria? You’ve got Iranians fighting against Daesh right now at the same time as you have coalition forces undertaking the same actions. Could it act as a unifying, maybe too strong a term, or at least a hatchet burying catalyst that could open opportunities for greater regional coordination if they can be defeated? Could the emergence of Daesh have a bit of a positive outcome in the longer term in your opinion?
[Prince Turki] Let me explain first why I call it Fahesh. Many of you who know Arabic will know the word Fahesh means ‘obscene’ and the Arabic acronym for ISIS is Da’ish. So I coined the word Fahesh to describe Daesh because they’re more applicable to them as the word Fahesh than Daesh. Da’ish in Arabic, of course, means ‘al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al- Sham’, which means Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; it’s all a sham. And they’re definitely not a state, they’re definitely not Islamic and they don’t control Iraq and Syria.
So, Fahesh is a much better word for them and I wish the media here, particularly the Arab media and I see two or three prominent ones already in here, would use that word instead of continuing to give them what that they so obviously want to get, which is recognition as being a state and as being Islamic.
On this issue whether they were galvanized, sure; we see already in Syria we have a coalition of countries that are fighting Fahesh on the ground. In Iraq, we have another coalition fighting Fahesh.
But that’s where the problem exists. Even in that galvanization of people around it, you find separate theatres of operations fighting the same enemy and that is unacceptable, that disjointed military campaign. It is never going to succeed in rooting out Fahesh because Fahesh is left to operate differently in different places and I’m guessing that you’re talking about rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That seems to be a very popular subject wherever I go and people ask me about it.
Two things that will never change in our relationship with Iran: geography; unfortunately we can’t cut off the Arabian Peninsula and sail away and lay anchor somewhere near Finland or near Sweden or…
[Robin Niblett] I was wondering which neighbour you were going to lay anchor next to. Finland, yes.
[Prince Turki] So we’re stuck with geography. It’s been thousands of years that we’ve been stuck with these people.
The other one, of course, the other one – and I’m serious about this and I say it in the friendliest of terms – the other thing that keeps us together is our religion. We worship the same god, we follow the same holy book, we have the same prophet and the history that has existed since 1400 years. Look at it, for God’s sake, Iran is ruled by a man who claims Arab descent. Khomeini wears the black turban because he believes that he is descended from the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
Now, this black turban should be a means for us to be together, rather than separating us and from that context, I would say that the kingdom has been trying year in and year out, even during the worst presidency that Iran had under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to engage with Iran, not just on issues of interference in Arab affairs but even on overcoming the Shia-Sunni divide.
In 2012, in Ramadan, the holiest of holy months in the Muslim calendar, the late King Abdullah called for an Islamic summit conference in the holy city of Mecca and the subject of that conference was to overcome the Shia-Sunni divide and Ahmadinejad came and all of the representatives of Muslim countries attended and they all agreed to set up a study group or a centre for overcoming this divide to be established in the city of Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Alas, since then, nothing has happened, despite the urging of Saudi Arabia. And other such indications of where Saudi Arabia has been; you all remember the Iraq support group that existed after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Who was it composed of? It was composed of the United Kingdom, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Jordan and at that time, even Syria was included.
So, this engagement with Iran has never been a taboo subject for Saudi Arabia and we are still trying. Our foreign minister met with their foreign minister in New York last September and I wasn’t there, of course, but I can imagine that each side presented a list of complaints to the other about our conduct. And our minister renewed the invitation to Mr Zarif to come to the kingdom to carry on the discussions further. He hasn’t arrived and hasn’t done so since President Rouhani was elected.
And you heard at the conference in Amman, that we attended together, that the main issue holding Zarif from coming there was an issue of protocol because Zarif wants to come and meet with the king. And at the time of King Abdullah, of course, King Abdullah was ill and he couldn’t meet him so he didn’t come. But if there was any serious intent on the part of Mr Zarif to engage in a conversation that will end up in results, he would have come.
These protocol issues are, I think, silly and insignificant and he was going to be given the highest accommodation available. And he’s going to meet his counterpart, he’s not going to be ignored, he’s not going to be insulted and put in a tent instead of a palace and things like that. So, issues of protocol are silly to use as an excuse.
But the kingdom is ready, willing and able and has said so publicly. Recently, Prince Saud, our foreign minister, in his press conference with Mr Kerry, just two weeks ago, mentioned that if Iran was a constructive player in the area, we’d be more than happy to coordinate with them. But they have to stop being a negative player. And that is where it stops.
[Robin Niblett] Well, as we’ve discovered, there are domestic politics in Iran as well as in the United States and Israel and everywhere else so I imagine there’s an element of that going on in terms of decisions they can take.
But we’ll come, I think, in a minute, to some of the issues at the core of the problems between Iran and Saudi Arabia, from Yemen, you’ve already mentioned Syria but Iraq with the Revolutionary Guard playing an increasingly active role, including in the retaking of Tikrit and so on.
So, there’s plenty to talk about. I know I’ve put a few questions out there but I’m sure I haven’t even touched the surface of the issues we’d like to do. So let me bring some questions in from our colleagues here and I’ll take hands as I’ve seen them go up.
[Question 1] Your Excellency, Jonathan Paris, member of Chatham House and a Middle East analyst. I’d like to follow up on Robin’s allusion to Yemen and get your views on what needs to be done about Yemen.
[Prince Turki] Yemen; there is a roadmap to resolve the instability and problems in the Yemen, which was approved by the United Nations Security Council a couple of years ago and which called for an interim government that would then set up the stage for a more permanent constitutional and institutional building resolution of Yemen’s problems.
That roadmap, alas, was interdicted and interrupted by one of the parties involved in Yemen, they’re called Houthis, with full support from Iran, by the way, which literally just simply took over the capital and for a time, imprisoned the president, the prime minister and many of the ministers who were in Sanaa at the time.
For them, it was an issue of taking over and that was plain and simple and they had, unfortunately, help, very strong help from the ex president who had been replaced through this roadmap that the GCC had proposed and that was supported by the Security Council.
Since that time, the president escaped from their clutches and moved to the other capital of the Yemen in Aden, as have now many of the ministers and just, I think, yesterday or the day before, finally, the Houthis released the prime minister.
And the president in Aden, who is legitimate, who is recognized by the United Nations Security Council and by all other countries in the area and in the world, except for Iran, has called for the reconciliation talks that were continuing in Sanaa to take place in the GCC headquarters in Riyadh. Many parties in the political frame of Yemen have supported his call, except for the Houthis and the supporters of the ex president; they haven’t done so.
But I think the meeting is probably going to go on and I think that’s where we can see, somehow, a way forward on Yemen. The kingdom and other countries, including the Security Council, support the President Hadi, who is the legitimate president there and wish him success. And in order to do that, I think we have to be ready to do whatever is necessary, not only to support him financially but to be able to politically and even militarily give him the support that he would need to face any party that would stand in the way of the reconciliation.
[Question 2] Hi, hello, it’s Martin Rance. I’m with Morgan Stanley. So, the question is inevitably about oil. I might be at risk of pushing the boundaries of the conversation a little bit but it’s very difficult to disconnect the Middle East from oil.
If you produce 10 million barrels a day, like Saudi Arabia does, the difference between $100 oil and $50 oil is about half a billion dollars in revenue per day and as a Russian government official once said, ‘A billion here, a billion there, before you know it, you’re talking real money.’
For most countries, that would have a fairly sizeable impact but, of course, Saudi Arabia is not any country. Still, I wanted to ask you, from where you are sitting, are you already starting to notice some impact of this and if not, what would you expect the impact of this to be over the medium term and finally, is there a point at which it becomes sensible for Saudi Arabia to become once again a more active sort of manager of oil markets?
[Prince Turki] First of all, I would say that the decline in prices affects everybody and I’m sure in the whole world, people are looking at what are the alternatives and what are the means of overcoming this precipitous decline from $100 now to less than $50.
[Robin Niblett] And many of us are welcoming it.
[Prince Turki] Well, let me just continue on that. So it’s not just Saudi Arabia that is thinking about where to go from here and I would simply add that I am not an oil expert but I do read and I do discuss with people who give me opinions, as I discussed with you earlier on the position of oil companies now.
I think producers of shale oil, for example, are equally facing a tough question for them. Are they going to invest more in that or is this decline in oil prices a longer term issue than they had envisioned and other such considerations?
The kingdom has already taken steps, within the kingdom, to meet this challenge that we have. First of all, the first step that we took is that we’re going to undertake whatever obligations we made, the government made to the people on the issue of projects and social and other services that are provided to the people. That is not going to change.
But, there is now a new higher council for economy and development in Saudi Arabia and they’re looking at all of the various alternatives that the kingdom may have on budget spending, on budget allocation, on prioritizing projects and so on because even if we have the wish that this situation will be gotten over quickly, it might take a longer time.
But I don’t think the kingdom will soon interfere in the oil market. We learned our lesson a long time ago that when you try to do that, you get burnt and the oil market will fix itself because there are so many players in the oil market that one country by itself is not going to fix it. One group of countries, OPEC, is not going to fix it and as you’ve seen, not just Russia but even the other OPEC members went along with the decision that was taken last year by OPEC to continue production quotas for the countries. So the kingdom will continue on that line.
[Question 3] John Wilson, a member of the [indiscernible] and Chatham House, a journalist. Further to what you said, Your Royal Highness, do you agree that the fundamental problems in the Middle East are not religious but economic, based on the rapid rise of populations?
[Prince Turki] No. I believe that the problems in the Middle East rise out of politics and definitely, whether internally or externally, the political attitudes and actions of countries are the driving force in that.
I look at Saudi Arabia as an example. The youth bulge that is described by many as being a potential threat to the kingdom; I see it as an asset because it gives us a fairly young population that have been, hopefully, better educated than my generation and that will come to the fore in the near future and take over from fuddy-duddies like me who haven’t done too well for them in what we’re leaving them but, hopefully, who can take on the challenges that face not only Saudi Arabia but other countries in the area.
And I know there are questions about, for example, diminishing resources, etc., but that has never stopped anybody in the past from finding alternatives and I think the young people are our biggest asset in being more imaginative, perhaps, more dynamic, definitely and even more ambitious, if you like in where they want to go in the future. As long as they have opportunity to go where they want to go, that is the main factor, I think that will affect youth in Saudi Arabia.
And the politics in the area, if you look at the colonization, post-colonization, Arab socialism, Islamic revival, all of that most of it has been driven by politics and not by religion. That is my perception. Even the so called Sunni-Shia divide, it was the politics of Ayatollah Khomeini in taking over power in Iran that drove him to emphasize the Shia spectre or the Shia colour of Iran and on the opposite side, those who have come up to oppose the Iranian influence and their growing interference in the area are doing so because of politics, not because of their adherence to the Sunni sect or to any particular subdivision of Islam. That is why I say that it is really more the politics, rather than the religion or the youth.
[Robin Niblett] And just quickly, probably applies to a lot of the Gulf countries, if you look across the Arab world, certainly to North Africa, a very populace part of the world where poverty is more broadly spread and where the Arab uprisings at least started, would you say there’s a differentiation between, maybe, dominance of politics in the Gulf region but economic opportunity, you’d say is also not a factor or not as important a factor in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean?
[Prince Turki] North Africa has many political problems. If you look at countries like Algeria, for instance, economically speaking, they should be much better off than they are and I’m sure they’re trying to be that as well.
Libya has huge economic resources. Tunis was one of the poorer countries, Morocco, less wealthy than the others but it was…the political differences, for example, between Algeria and Morocco are the things that are preventing the establishment of a regional organization in the model of the GCC.
[Robin Niblett] But what about internal politics capturing the economies, would you also reference that type of politics as being a problem?
[Prince Turki] I would that the politics is the one that drives the economic issue.
[Robin Niblett] But it could be internal, not simply between countries?
[Prince Turki] And even internal and I think Algeria is a case in point. It is the politics of the situation that allows Mr Bouteflika to remain in power in Algeria and he’s been a very deft ruler from that context. It was the politics in Libya that led to the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi. And today it is the politics in Libya that is keeping Libya from coming together and overcoming their differences.
[Question 4] Ronan Tynan. Thank you Prince Turki for you comments about the Israeli election, which certainly chimed with my own feelings but I just want to ask you about something John Kerry said late last year when he said spontaneously, during a visit to the region, trying to generate support for ISIS, he found that leaders asked him to do something or to urge a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
I put it to you that the election, as you rightly said, that Netanyahu appears to be a very dangerous development, given his unequivocal commitment to absolutely never succumbing to the idea of a Palestinian state, surely it’s time for urgent action? And I want to ask you in that context, do you have any ideas as to how that could be pressed forward, given the context we’re now in, because it is an issue that seems to come up from time to time and become an all encompassing issues with considerable potential to damage not just the Middle East, as you said but all of us?
[Robin Niblett] On this issue, I mean, I know you addressed it a little earlier on but is there something else you want to say? What could be done at this point, this time?
[Prince Turki] Well, I think immediately, the Palestinian Authority should go to the International Criminal Court and present their case against Israel and that will definitely stir the pot, if you like and, hopefully, if America is so convinced of its position that there is going to be a two-stage solution, then they will have to do something to meet that challenge in the International Criminal Court.
Otherwise, I don’t know, you tell me. What do you want us to do? We’ve done everything. The Arab peace plan is on the table and we’re supporting Mahmoud Abbas’ position on renegotiations. Just yesterday, I think, he reiterated the fact that after elections, he will hope to start renegotiating with the Israelis. So that’s where it stands.
[Question 5] [Indiscernible], member of Chatham House and investment manager. From Iraq originally. The question for you is: you said something, Your Highness, that I really like, that America should take more action on Syria and on the region in general. But isn’t the real issue that Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies are not taking enough action themselves in the region. We talk about Fahesh, we talk about Yemen, we talk about Beirut, this is your sphere of influence; it shouldn’t be Iran’s sphere of influence.
[Question 6] Always nice to see you, Prince Turki. Two points, one is what do you see Iran doing in the area after they’ve signed the agreement, the nuclear agreement, which you think is going to happen rather quickly, because already we see them almost taking over quite a few countries?
The second one is, is it possible that all these countries gathering to defeat Daesh, Fahesh –
I think Fahesh is a better name for it – how come they’re not succeeding? Do they not want to do it, maybe?
[Prince Turki] Well, I beg to differ with you. I think Saudi Arabia has been in the lead against Fahesh. It’s been in the lead in trying to get the Arab countries together to meet not just Fahesh but the other issues. If you take the issue of Syria, for example, how it progressed since March, 2011.
It was Saudi and Gulf countries that took the lead in pushing the Arab League to take the positions that they did as far as Bashar al-Assad is concerned and moving that issue to the United Nations Security Council was under the lead of Saudi Arabia and her Gulf allies.
On the military side, it was Saudi Arabia that has continued to call for support for the Free Syrian Army and provide them with the necessary means to defend the Syrian people and we have pitched in with whatever we have, resources, whether money or arms to help the Syrians.
In Iraq equally; it was Saudi Arabia that first called for the demise of Mr al-Maliki as prime minister and, fortunately, the rest of the world community finally came to the conclusion that that might be a good idea.
And so the kingdom has been in the forefront. We were not followers; we were leaders. We convinced the United States of taking this military action that is now undertaken in Syria against Fahesh. Unfortunately, in Iraq, the Abadi government has not seen fit to ask for our support. They’re much too concerned about offending the Iranians.
[Robin Niblett] So there might have been military support active, rather than calling on, if you were to be called upon.
[Prince Turki] Absolutely and look, on Syria, for example, our foreign minister has already declared that if there is any effort to undertake boots on the ground types of operations in Syria, Saudi Arabia would be willing to participate in that.
On your question, which was?
[Robin Niblett] Just for those who can’t hear, where will Iran go if the negotiations are successful?
[Prince Turki] I wish I knew. I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball. But the Iranians have never shown that they’re willing to reconsider their actions and I think from that context, they will continue to press their advance, wherever they may be and I think the agreement will give them licence to do that because the lifting of the sanctions will probably make them even more confident in themselves and give them the means to do that.
[Question 7] Hamad [indiscernible], member of Chatham House. My question to you, Your Royal Highness is that… unlike historical conflicts in the region, the current conflicts are not resulting in any new states. Traditionally, it’s been coups or certain wars or countries being divided but now what’s happening is more of an assimilation of the Arab world, where you have countries that are failing, with no traditional borders and nothing seems to be changing. In your view, is that the new status quo or is that a transitional period?
[Robin Niblett] Okay, collapse of states and so on.
[Question 8] Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff, member of Chatham House and also engaged in interfaith dialogue, which, of course, it’s my privilege, of course, to work with Your Royal Highness and Lord Carey in the World Economic Forum.
If I might just press a little point about religion, we might be agreed that religion is not a primary driver but it has been very much used. I just wondered if that could be explored a little about the impact of the way in which religion is being used.
And then the tension between Gulf states, how that has played out. That seems to have been quite a driver of some significance in Syria and if you would like to comment, Your Royal Highness, on that?
And lastly, in regard to the Muslim Brotherhood, is there an aspect there that is primarily religious or political that makes the Muslim Brotherhood seem particularly difficult for Saudi Arabia to work with?
[Prince Turki] Well, I hope it’s transition. Wherever there have been popular uprisings, historically, they have developed momentum and taken years to overcome the instability and the uncertainty associated with those uprisings. Historically, if you look back at Europe in the 1840s or revolutions that took place in Russia, for example or even in Arab countries, post colonial revolutions in Egypt, in Iraq and Syria, etc., they’ve taken years to settle. So I don’t think we can expect there is going to be a calm and orderly transition to stable government soon. In some countries, they’ve taken steps that have been positive in that context, Tunis, for example. They seem to be mending in that effort.
Egypt is trying very hard to mend and we’ve just seen the Sharm El-Sheikh Economic Conference in support of Egypt where, literally, hundreds of private enterprise companies from all over the world came in to show their support for the Egyptian people and their willingness to invest in Egypt. That is an indication of where that community is looking upon Egypt as a future place for their investments.
And in other places, also, in Bahrain, there are, you know, this and that but it’s moving forward. Others are taking a more difficult turn, Libya for example, which still has civil war, still has issues and killing. Syria, of course, is the worst with the mass killing there and Yemen equally difficult.
So that’s one aspect. But I hope that we can overcome these issues, more on the short term rather than the long term. And the kingdom has been trying very hard to help in these efforts, even in Iraq, for example, where the kingdom has had an issue with the previous government at least on sectarian issues. We gave, for example, to the World Relief organization $500 million to settle Iraqi refugees from the recent Fahesh interference in Iraq.
So, we’re trying to do our best and I think with the help of others, maybe we can move forward. What was the other question?
[Robin Niblett] Religion, the role of religion and the Muslim Brotherhood, is it more political or religious?
[Prince Turki] The Muslim Brotherhood, my problem with the Muslim Brotherhood is really based on a philosophical issue. The Muslim Brotherhood present themselves as a brotherhood with a leadership and even an oath of loyalty to the leadership that, coming from a Muslim background, I can only think of one loyalty in human terms, which is to the leader of the country. And so, having two oaths of loyalty is disconcerting, to say the least, from my personal point of view.
I’m not privy to the intelligence or to the information about Muslim Brotherhood activities in the various countries but this country, I think, has put some time now into a study and there is supposed to be, I think, a report coming out soon about what the UK will decide on the issue of whether the Muslim Brotherhood is or is not a terrorist organization or has some criminal activities or not.
As far as working with the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia worked with the Muslim Brotherhood for 40 years and yet, that did not prevent that issue of loyalty from being a thorn, if you like, in that relationship between us. And so, I think judicial and government institutions are better qualified to give an answer to that than me because they have all the information.
But religion, you’re right. Religion is used politically by various groups to further their aims and it is, alas, to the effect that people are being killed, refugees are made and homes and other public institutions are destroyed. And the only way to get over that, I think, is to find political solutions.
[Robin Niblett] I am going to bring in some last questions and we may go a couple of minutes over time but if I may just piggyback on this question, Saudi Arabia is the guardian of the two holy sites. Have I phrased that correctly?
[Prince Turki] Custodian.
[Robin Niblett] Custodian, thank you, custodian. Sorry, I knew I was going to use the wrong terminology; custodian of the two holy sites. Is there an extent to which it holds a special responsibility in trying to make sure that the literalist interpretation of Islam that is sometimes associated with Saudi Salafism is not then used by the kind of extremist that we see in IS to justify their kind of actions; does Saudi Arabia hold a special responsibility? Are there things it can do to try to detach the use of religion for such murderous purposes?
[Prince Turki] Very much so and I think as in my answer to Saudi Arabia’s activities in the Middle East, I would say that Saudi Arabia has been in the lead of countries that are very much trying to make Muslims, wherever they’re from, that they feel that they’re a member of the same community, whatever inclination or sect or other complexions they may follow.
And you see that reflected in our programmes for the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is the biggest gathering of any number of people anywhere in the world and for a period of a month, you have nearly… last year, I think the numbers were about 3 million coming together in one place and doing the same things at the same time.
When they start the pilgrimage, the whole exercise starts on the ninth day of the month of the Hajj at dawn. People move from the town of Mina, that’s now become a suburb of Mecca, to Arafat, which is the place where the Prophet, peace be upon him, gave the sermon on his pilgrimage to Mecca 1,400 years ago. It’s a distance of 13 kilometres and some of them cross it by foot, many of them take buses and now there is a railway that takes people there and each site has a special rite to it.
On the way to Arafat, they stop to pray the noon and afternoon prayers, collectively. Imagine, three million people doing the prayers at the same time in one place. And then after that prayer, they go on to Arafat, where the sunset prayers are then held. After the sunset prayers, they start moving back the same way and when they get to Muzdalifah, in between Arafat and Mina, again, there are special rites of prayers and the collection of the stones that they will use, symbolically, to stone the devil when they get back to Mina.
Imagine, there are three million people doing that at the same time and they do that and from Muzdalifah, they go on to Mina and that’s where the pilgrimage ends by their stoning of the symbols of the devil and the sacrifice of a lamb or a sheep or a camel and so on. And that’s the pilgrimage. That’s where it starts and that’s how it ends. There are three days of festivities afterwards and then people can go home.
Now, all these Muslims who are there, they come from all over the place and the follow all the sects of Islam, without any hindrance or without any opposition or any such interference in their practice of their religious rites.
And the kingdom publicly and schools and mosques and the media, in every aspect of public life, has been carrying on this message that King Abdullah wanted to put at the summit, back in 2012, which is that Muslims should come together, Shia and Sunni and the subdivisions thereof.
It’s difficult. There are, within Saudi society, those who disagree with that, like there are in other societies, fringes that want to implement and to promote the extremist view of religion. In our courts, the fours Sunni schools of thought are recognized as being equally legitimate, as Hanbali, Shafi’i, Hanafi and Maliki and so on.
But, we have problems and, hopefully, we can get over them and the way we get over them, as I said, is through education, through the mosques, through the media, social interaction and any public utterances.
[Question 9] Very pleased to see you again in London. My origins are from Sri Lanka. My question, very quickly, is about Saudi Arabia and the relationship it has with emerging economies, especially Africa. I would like to know what the relationship is because at the present moment, Saudi Arabia is well known for investments in Europe and also in North America.
[Question 10] I’m a Bahraini lawyer in London. How do you see the role of regional bodies like the Arab League and the GCC? Will that role change? Should it change in light of the challenges in the region?
[Question 11] I’m an academy fellow here at Chatham House. I would like to ask what’s your take about the gas agreement between Jordan and Israel that is going on?
[Prince Turki] Gas agreement, I don’t know. I’m not privy to the details of it but Jordan has diplomatic relations with Israel. They already have economic and other relations with Israel and for the life of me, if Jordan wants gas from anywhere, they should be able to get it. And if they can’t get it, let’s say, from Egypt, they’re going to look for wherever they can get it.
On Africa, the kingdom is very active in Africa but not much publicity surrounding that. The Saudi Development Fund is a big contributor to African projects, all along Africa, especially in the Sahara area, which is just below the North African states. And if you go from the coast of Sudan and the Red Sea, all the way across through Chad, Niger and the other countries, along Senegal, Ivory Coast and so on and even further south in Rwanda and in Central Africa and so on, you will find many projects that have been funded and given support by Saudi Arabia.
And we also, on the other hand, receive many pilgrims from Africa and you may be surprised to know that some of these African pilgrims actually do the pilgrimage the way they used to do it before automotive transport. They come on foot from as far away as Senegal and Nigeria and so on, out of a sense of devotion to the practice of the pilgrimage.
And they’re all hosted in the kingdom, of course and trade wise and so on, we do cooperate with African countries. I am looking forward to unity, Insha’Allah, of the GCC and I hope that with all the crises that we’re facing in the area that that would be sooner rather than later. This has been the call that the kingdom put before the other GCC countries.
On the Arab League, yes, I think the Arab League needs to be more active and I know that the present secretary general of the Arab League has various projects that he is presenting to the member states to make it a more active organization.
For a period there, it was pretty active. On Syria it was very active, on Libya it was very active. On Yemen it is very active but there are structural issues that need to be fixed and, I think, also they need more support from the states, the member states. Maybe they’re not getting enough of that.
Thank you very much ladies and gentleman.
[Robin Niblett] I’ve got so many people to ask questions. I apologize for that. Thank you very much, Your Royal Highness – very strong hand.
[Prince Turki] Thank you very much.
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