Prince Turki al-Faisal on
The Middle East in 2015 – A View from the Gulf
Dr. Mozammel Haque
A conversation with His Royal Highness, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Sa’ud took place at Chatham House on 18 March 2015. Mr. Robin Niblett, Director of the Chatham House started the conversation.
Prince Turki al-Faisal
While introducing Prince Turki al-Faisal, Mr. Robin Niblett, Director of the Chatham House, London said, Prince Turki will be speaking “in your capacity as chairman of King Faisal Centre for Research in Islamic Studies.” Mr. Niblett also said, “Prince Turki, 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.”
Director of the Chatham House started off the conversation by mentioning “what people are saying about an unexpected result in the Israeli elections and an election 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.”
Israeli elections and the future of Palestine
Mr. Niblett first started the conversation by asking: “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?”
Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud said, “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.”
On the question of whether it is more dangerous or not, Prince Turki al-Faisal said, “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 rightwingers 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,” mentioned Prince Turki al-Faisal.
He added, “So, the danger is there; it’s going to continue and it’s going to reflect on all of us, not just the Palestinians.”
Iran nuclear programme
Giving a background of the Nuclear programme of Iran vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, Mr. Niblett took him to the other key topic on the agenda. He said, “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 al-Faisal gave a clear picture of what is going on between the United States and Iran. He said, “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,” mentioned Prince Turki al-Faisal.
He also said, “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,” mentioned Prince Turki al-Faisal and added, “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.”
Prince Turki al-Faisal said, “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.”
Saudi –United States relationship
“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,” said Mr. Niblett and asked, “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 said, “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.” But he maintained, “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.”
Mr. Niblett started conversation on Syria. Prince Turki al-Faisal said, “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.”
Prince Turki publicly proposed some actions which should be taken. He said, “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.”
On the so-called Islamic State – ISIS – Fahesh
Mr. Niblett brought out his last question on “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?” “Could the emergence of Daesh have a bit of a positive outcome in the longer term in your opinion?” he also asked.
Prince Turki said, “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 alSham’, 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,” Prince Turki said and added, “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.”
Rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran
Mr. Niblett was talking about rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Prince Turki al-Faisal said, “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…”
Prince Turki mentioned, “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.”
He said, “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 Makkah 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 Madinah in Saudi Arabia.”.
Prince Turki lamented, “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.”
Prince Turki also said that the “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.”
Questions & Answers Session
After this initial conversation and discussion, the floor was opened up, got some thoughts and questions. Those questions are mainly on Yemen, Oil, and fundamental problem in the Middle East, North Africa, and Palestine-Israel etc.
a) Solution of Yemen?
About the question on what needs to be done about Yemen, Prince Turki al-Faisal said, “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,” mentioned Prince Turki Al-Faisal.
Speaking about the solution about Yemen crisis, Prince Turki said, “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.”
b) Fundamental problems in the Middle East
With regard to the question that the fundamental problems in the Middle East are religious, politics or economic, Prince Turki al-Faisal, “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.”
Prince Turki continued, “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.”
c) Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian situation
With regard to the question about the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Prince Turki said, “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.”
d) Syria – ISIS and the future
With regard to the question on the role of Saudi Arabia in the resolution of Syria crisis, Prince Turki al-Faisal said, “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.”
Prince Turki also maintained, “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. 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.”