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prince amr ibn mohammad al faisal

A columnist and frequent commentator in the Arab media, Prince Amr is the grandson of King Faisal who ruled from 1964 to 1975. In much of this interview, Prince Amr discusses the Saudi rulers, from Abd al-Aziz to Crown Prince Abdullah, and their traits of personality, character and leadership during times of change and crisis. Emphasizing the West's need to understand Saudi society and its history and evolution, he says the West will "never understand" the place of religion in his society and needs to appreciate the traumatic impact modernization has had on a people who are deeply conservative. "You simply cannot understand the leap this country has gone through in the last fifty years," says Prince Amr. "…The people are exhausted from this change." Consequently, he says, the Saudi leadership should be cautious about the pace of reform. "After a while, the people simply say, 'Look, enough'." This interview was conducted partly in English and partly with a translator by producer Jihan El-Tahri on Sept. 2003 in Jeddah.

Can you explain to us ... the creation of the current Saudi state? ...

The first stage began in the 1740s or the 1750s, and it started with an encounter between two men, the late Muhammad ibn Saud and the late Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

... Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was a religious reformer who started to preach a necessity to go back to the purer sources of Islam, because over the period of centuries, this part of the Arab world had become a backwater and had become a land of ignorance. People had started to mix up and to forget the proper teachings of Islam. ...

So the Sheikh Muhammad began to preach that we need to reform our religious societies based on our religious principles. This didn't go down well with the local rulers in that area, and they considered him to be a troublemaker. ... So he was forced to flee from one town to another to find someone or someplace where he could find a proper response to his call.

Finally, he was invited to a small town in central Najd called Dariyyah, [which] was ruled by a member of the ibn Saud family who was called Muhammad ibn Saud. His wife was one of the disciples of the sheikh. She had heard of him and his letters and was impressed by him and believed him to be a great man. So she asked her husband to invite him, and he did.

And when ... the sheikh was expounding on his message to Muhammad ibn Saud, Muhammad ibn Saud was a bit lukewarm in his reception, but his wife happened to be listening in to all of this. And when he got up and left, she gave him a hard time and said: "You know this man. You cannot abandon him. What he is saying is right, and you must support him."

photo of prince amr ibn mohammad al faisal
Everything in this country revolves around religion. The reason is that the religion is the law.  It permeates the culture.  It is rooted in the history.  It is part of the DNA of the Saudis.

And so he went back, and they had a kind of agreement that ibn Saud would support Sheikh Muhammad and his message. They would provide the military and logistical support for it, because this was a society that was very violent, lawless, and so it required some military force to protect [it]. And so Sheikh Muhammad would then base his da'wa, or his preaching, from Dariyyah.

So they began this preaching, and it had a great deal of success. And the reason that it had a lot of success was that the peoples of this part of the world had become fed up with the lawlessness, the violence, the chaos of their lives. ... [They] wanted to practice their faith in a proper way, and ... not just to practice it as a custom without knowing what they were doing. And so the preaching of Sheikh Muhammad was very popular.

Now, this, of course, did not go down very well with the local rulers, who considered this to be a challenge to the status quo and to their own power, so they tried to stop the preaching and the da'wa through military means. And here is where ibn Saud moved in, to act as a shield for the preaching of Sheikh Muhammad. ...

So they had quite a success story, and they started to unite areas which were previously just wild tribes and start[ed] creating a quasi-state. Their influence extended all the way to Yemen, and eventually they were able to even enter into the Hijaz, which is in the western part of the peninsula. ... And they went into Mecca and Medina and conquered.

Now this, of course, triggered a reaction from the Ottoman Empire, because these parts of the world were part of the Ottoman Empire. ... So [the Ottomans launched] a propaganda campaign against this new religious movement. ... They called them Wahhabis, which is something that the Wahhabis do not call themselves. This is an Ottoman [term]. ...

What does that mean?

The reason that they are calling them Wahhabis is that they are trying to say that they are following a sect rather than [being] reformers of the normal religious mainstream. ... This is the aim of this description.

But it has [caught] on completely.

Yes, over time it has taken on a life of its own. They accused them of being against the prophet, being haters of the prophet, or being haters of the family of the prophet.


Because the Wahhabis were the followers of Sheikh Muhammad. They were against the custom that had become prevalent in many Muslim countries of the veneration of the dead, similar to what happened in Christianity with the idea of saints. In Islam there is no such a thing as saints and the veneration of people who are dead. They believe that people can intercede between a human being and God. This is an unethical [idea] to Muslims. And rightly so, the sheikh was against this.

Naturally, any reformer, any person who is changing the status quo, is always [met with] resist[ance]. Throughout history this has been the case. Also, ibn Saud [was] challenging the Ottoman Empire and claiming that [the Turks] were no longer truly representing the Islamic umma [community, in Arabic] and therefore were no longer competent to continue as rulers of the Peninsula. ...

[What was the first king of Saudi Arabia, your great-grandfather, King Abd al-Aziz -- what was he like?]

I never met him. He died before I was born, in 1953. I was born in 1960. I was always told about his courage, his wisdom, and about his magnanimity in victory, which is a common trait in ibn Saud. They tend to treat their enemies well -- after victory, of course. ...

He had a very powerful character, which was tempered by a lot of wisdom. ... And he certainly had a vision. He had a large, big vision of what he wanted this country to be.

For example?

He wanted it to be a nation, to be a state like other states, to have hospitals, roads, schools, factories -- all the elements of a modern state -- and to take its place among the nations rather than to be a forgotten backwater where nobody cares [if] they live or die, but to be a player in the international scene.

But to do this, what did he have to do?

He had to make a country. He had to unite this people, to bring them together in one nation whereby all of them would work together to build their own country. It is the efforts of all the people in this part of the world, directed and with the vision [and] leadership of King Abd al-Aziz ... [that] make [this vision] come true....

[In 1927, some of] the members of the Ikhwan [tribal communities] were against this vision. But those who were against this vision were, in my opinion, consumed by their passions, consumed by their strong faith, without really using their minds very much. Mostly it was their heart that they were using. They could not understand that they had reached the maximum that was possible at that stage of history, and they wanted to push further and therefore bring on a reaction which would have destroyed everything. ...

They wanted to attack Iraq. They wanted to go to Syria. They wanted to create an empire extending across all of the Muslim world. Who knows where they would have stopped? Maybe in France, if they were given the chance. But they couldn't do it. It was not possible at that specific point in history. It was not possible. They had already taken the maximum that could be taken at that stage.


And so they revolted against [King Abd al-Aziz], and they accused him of being an infidel, of having abandoned the faith of Islam and becoming worldly, and all that kind of thing. And so they revolted against him, and he had to fight them. He defeated them, and we are lucky he defeated them. ...

Was this a kind of a turning point?

Yes, this was a turning point, because it ended any major opposition to the process of modernization of Saudi Arabia. After that there was no serious opposition to that. And the process of modernization, the process of bringing this part of the world into the 20th century and to become a nation among other nations, became possible.

After King Abd al-Aziz entered Mecca and Medina, his role became suddenly internationalized. He was no longer a local ruler in some backwater, but he was the man who was in charge of the most holy areas of Islam. And therefore, he immediately became involved with the state of the Muslim umma as a whole, no longer just of the part of the Muslim umma within the peninsula.

So he began to be concerned with issues: The Indonesian Muslims, the Egyptian Muslims, the Indian Muslims began to be things of his concern. So he began to have an international outlook. ...

And so, [in 1945, aboard] the [U.S.S.] Quincy, he met with President [Franklin] Roosevelt. King Abd al-Aziz was very intelligent throughout his career, being able to maneuver the superpowers, and always making sure that he could sail the ship of his state, if you like, without being crashed on any of these rocks. [He tried] to make sure that Saudi Arabia would always be protected from the rivalries of these different superpowers.

Early on, he understood that the British Empire was on its last legs and that the new power coming out was the United States. And so he quickly tried to establish contacts with the U.S. ... [At that time] the U.S. was looked on favorably by most of the Muslim world [because] it was not a colonial power. On the contrary, it was anticolonial. It was ... the policy of the U.S. that decolonization was [one] of its principles, that people should have the right to self-determination. ... It was only Saudi Arabia in the region, and maybe Yemen, [that were] uncolonized. Everybody else was either under the British, the French, the Italians or whoever else there was.

So it was a logical and natural alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States. The United States was a young, dynamic power, a growing power, that was not colonial, that was against colonialism, a people that were religious just like we are religious. They have a very strong faith in their Christian heritage, and we have a very strong faith in our Muslim heritage.

It was something that was different from the Soviet Union, which was also coming out at that time. But the Soviets were communists, who were regarded as atheists, and therefore antireligious, and therefore anti-Islamic. And there was no way that we could reach an understanding with them, even though [they were] one of the first countries -- if not the first country -- to recognize the Saudi monarchy. ... So therefore, [our] natural alliance was with the United States. ...

[Tell me about the third king, your grandfather, King Faisal.]

... I was very young at the time, and I was very over-awed by the late king. I never saw him as my grandfather; I always saw him as the king. ... He had a very powerful presence, and he is not the kind of person you would banter with. No, if you had something important to say, say it; if you didn't, be quiet. He didn't say that, but he imposed that kind of feeling.

There is even an anecdote which gives you some idea: I think the Dutch ambassador, one of the Dutch ambassadors, was presenting his credentials to the late king. And he stood before him, and he kept saying, "Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty." Then he fainted because he was so impressed by the late king. It is something that you had to be there to see it. It is not something that you can see on television. He had a very, very powerful presence for a king, and he was a born king. He was made to be a king. ...

But was there no private person?

No. In private he was a very quiet man. Maybe in earlier years he was more open, more relaxed, but once he became king -- I am told by my relatives, my other relatives, after 1967 and the fall of Jerusalem to the Israelis, that was a turning point in his life. He never smiled again, according to them. I didn't see him smile much, and he became very quiet and contemplative, and mostly he would spend his time listening rather than speaking himself. He would just make one comment or observation when necessary. He was not a chatty person. ...

[In what way were the two kings -- King Saud and his half-brother King Faisal, who followed him -- different?]

Well, that is a difficult question to answer. ... Well, I think King Saud by his nature was more local than international. King Saud was a king who was more in touch, closer to his own people than the international scene. King Faisal, on the other hand, was a man who had very great international contacts. He was even the foreign minister, so he was even much more in touch with the outside world than King Saud.

Remember that at the time, Saudi Arabia was a very closed kingdom. Foreigners, for instance, were not allowed to go to Riyadh except for getting permits and so on. ... King Saud was in [that] area that was enclosed. He was cut off from the world, and [as] a consequence, the rest of the world was cut off from him as well. They didn't know him because he didn't make an effort to be known.

What kind of a man was he?

... I never had contact [with him] -- again, I was very young -- but I am told that he was a very kind, gentle man. But the problem with King Saud, I think, [was that] he was born too late. Had he come a generation earlier, I think he would have had more success. ...

The country had changed. It could no longer be cut off from the rest of the world. The world would not leave us alone to let us do whatever we wanted in our own kingdom. That was over. We were now part of the world, and we had to react to it. This [w]as a very turbulent time in the world, and in the Middle East in particular.

The Cold War was at its peak, where we had two mighty empires battling it out across the whole planet, destroying nations in their path. And you had the end of colonialism and these newly liberated countries coming out, full of vitality, full of energy and wanting to prove themselves. And the theme was out with the old, in with the new. Who cares whether the old was good or bad? We want to change. We want to change and get everything new. So in this kind of environment, we who were quintessentially old -- you know what I mean? -- we were the odd ones out. We were going against the trend. And so it was a very dangerous time for us.

Now, the late King Saud ... could not understand these forces. He could not understand how affecting these forces could be on his own kingdom and on his beloved Riyadh. ... He understood the Saudi people and his own people very well, but he couldn't understand the foreigners. And it was at a point in time where he had to know the foreigners. He had to. He had no choice. He could not ignore the foreigners, because the foreigners were affecting everything.


Because of oil, of Islam, because of the Cold War, because of all of these factors. Saudi Arabia couldn't be neutral. [They] had to take a stand, to react. It could not be ignored. And the desire of the late King Saud was to ignore it. ...

Well, the late King Saud was ruling in a traditional manner in a situation that could not be continued to be ruled in a traditional manner. [It was a situation] which required new institutions, new instruments. This is one of the fundamental clashes between the late King Faisal and the late King Saud.

King Faisal insisted that there must be the modern instruments of managing a nation, like ministries, like government departments, like having a currency policy with a monetary authority, banking, economic understanding, economics, and how they can be affected by government decisions -- all of these issues that King Saud couldn't understand. He just couldn't make sense of it, and it led this country nearly [to] the verge of catastrophe. Economically, we were in a terrible shape when King Faisal came to the prime ministership for the first time. There were all kinds of anecdotes that in the Treasury there was something like six riyals, something ridiculous like that, and it required drastic measures from King Faisal's side which were unpopular.

... [One anecdote came from] somebody who was very important. He was asked, "Who do you prefer, Faisal or Saud?" He said, "Look, my heart is with Saud, but my brain is with Faisal." And I think this sums up the character of the two men.

And all this came to light in 1964? [How did the transfer of power happen?]

Again, I was only 4 years old at the time, but it was very crucial that there was a consensus on this step, because the step of removing a monarch is not something lightly taken by anyone. It is a very serious, dangerous step, and no one in their right minds would look at this lightly. And, as you know, removing one monarch means that you can always remove another. So it is a very dangerous, tricky process.

So it was very important, I think, from King Faisal's point of view that this step must be the will of the majority; that the consensus [must be] among the most important constituencies in this country. [Those constituencies] are the royal family; the ulama, who are the religious authorities; and the business community and the merchants of the wealth of this country. These are the three major pillars of power in this country. And it was important that all three of them reach the consensus that this step must be done. And this is what happened. It took a long time. There was much debate; there was a lot of bitterness. But eventually this decision was taken by the majority that this step had to be taken; the nation required it.

How was it taken?

Through debate. This is the way we do everything in this country. We debate; we talk amongst each other until a consensus is formed, and then a decision is taken. It is a slow process, but it means that decisions are slow ones because they are taken based on the consensus. ...

What would you say was the one major argument that made this decision?

I don't know what the major argument [was], but it was the situation of the country, I think, overall: the economic situation, the political situation.

And the personal?

Because King Saud was intransigent. He could have kept his throne, but ... he didn't leave [them] the choice. [He said]: "Either me or Faisal. You will have to choose." And so they chose Faisal. ...

Of course there is also the whole side of King Saud's extravagance. ...

I don't think that was much of a concern. His extravagance was not -- how shall I put it? -- it wasn't the big issue. Kings can be extravagant and still remain king. I think the big issue was his lack of institutionalizing, the running of the government. That was the biggest problem. It was all personal.

Let me give you an example: The government salaries were paid from his private purse. There was no distinction between government funds and personal funds of the king. It was all one. So you cannot run a modern state in this manner. You cannot have the government being paid from the king's personal checkbook. You cannot have the national funds in the king's personal pocket. It just doesn't work that way. So it's not a question of extravagance, because you can have extravagant kings -- so what? It's not a big deal. It was the lack of institutionalizing the monarchy. ...

Now that King Faisal comes to power, there is this whole concept of modernity that starts, this tug between Islam and modernity. [How did that] work in Saudi Arabia?

... It is important to understand what is meant by modernity. Essentially, modernity means Westernization. This is a fact. It's like a buzzword, OK? Modern means Westernized. This is where we have problems, not only in Saudi Arabia but also in many, many countries around the world. People who want to be advanced -- I would rather use a different word than modern -- to run their lives better, but not necessarily sacrificing their own culture and their own history in order to become copies of Frenchmen or copies of the English or false Americans. They don't want that. The Chinese want to stay Chinese. They want to have the advanced facilities like medicine, like the roads, transportation systems, telecommunication systems, without necessarily becoming Americans.

And then the Saudis?

And the Saudis are the same. They are not unusual. They are typical of most of the human race. ... When we talk about modernization, we do not mean Westernization. We do not mean that we want to become like the Americans or for our country to become like America. It simply means that we want to organize ourselves in a way that allows our citizens to live better lives, to have access to education, to have access to new medical methods, to be able to have a better economic system -- you know, all the things people want.

Was it difficult for Faisal to create female schools?

It was very difficult for King Faisal to introduce education for women, for girls, because in addition to having this tug that you mentioned between modernization or Westernization and our traditional Islamic values, there is also a tug between our traditions which have nothing to do with Islam, which are simply customs and habits that we have acquired over millennia, that may or may not be part of Islam, the pure Islamic religion, which has nothing to do with our local culture and customs. In many other countries, not just in Saudi Arabia, there is a confusion between the two.

So in many aspects the culture, the custom is acquainted with religion. ... It was not customary in Saudi Arabia for women to be educated. It was not customary; it was not the tradition. Therefore, when he introduced this, he was going against custom; he was going against tradition. So he was immediately accused of being anti-Islamic, which is nonsense, complete and utter nonsense.

How did he react?

He reacted by saying that the education for girls was not compulsory, that it was optional. Anybody who wanted their girls educated, the schools are there; they are welcome. No one has the right to stop a girl from being educated, and anyone who tries to do that, we will use force to protect her right to be educated. ...

But the people who are opposing were sometimes religious people?

They were confused, because there is nothing in our religion that says that girls should not be educated. On the contrary, our religion demands that we all be educated, whether girls or boys. We should all learn. Our religion is constantly asking us to learn. ...

What happened [when King Faisal introduced] the television?

... They considered that broadcasting, the television, is a sin, and [they were] against [it] because they considered it to be images, and we are not supposed to show images. They considered that this was rank heresy and that the government had become in league with the devil. There are always extremists in any society, not just in ours. ...

What this illustrates is something that you need to understand: The Saudi society, the Saudi people, are very conservative. It is their nature, and you will see that throughout the history of this country, any efforts at modernization -- and I mean Westernization -- usually meets with the resistance from the people themselves.

It has always been the role of the government to lead the people into the 21st century. And this is something that is repeated over and over again in many different aspects of our society. Always our government is the government for liberalizing, for modernizing, and the resistance always comes from certain elements within our society, not because of any evil intent, but because change is difficult, and this country has gone through enormous change.

You simply cannot understand the leap that this country has gone through in the last 50 years. It is no matter how I explain it. It cannot be explained. The Saudi people have done enormous changes that no other people have had to go through. ...

[It is] like from the Middle Ages to the 21st century in one century, in the life of one person, one human being. The people are exhausted from this change. Their psyche is exhausted from this change. After a while they simply say: "Look, enough. I don't care whether this change is good or bad. I want what I am used to. I am not going to change anymore. That's it. I have had enough."

What was the point when the people said, "Enough change"?

I think it was the hijacking of the [Great] Mosque [al-Haram] in 1979 ... in Mecca. I think this was a symptom of the trauma, [that] things were changing too fast; people couldn't keep up with it. Right or wrong, they said, "Slow down." And the government had to back down the pace of the change. ...

So was it a shock ... for the [royal family]?

... Yes, this was regarded as a shock to the [family], and most people understood that we couldn't keep on modernizing at a breakneck speed. We had to slow down a bit, and we had to pay more attention to people's mental condition. You just can't drag people into the 21st century by the scruff of the neck. You just can't do that.

And this also changed our approach of the government. Unfortunately, I think that what throws things off is that a couple of years later, the First Gulf War began. And the First Gulf War, in my opinion, created a halt in the development in this country in all levels -- economic, industrial, you name it.

When you say First Gulf War, what do you mean?

When Saddam Hussein attacked Iran and the first war between Iran and Iraq began*. I think this stopped a lot of the process of modernization in this country because all the energies were directed to supporting Iraq. And a lot of money was spent on that war. A lot of money. And we have never really recovered from that as a country, economically or socially. It has affected all our development plans, delayed them. Some of them -- I don't know if we will ever recover from them.

Editor's Note: Prince Amr refers to the Iran-Iraq War (1981-1989) as the First Gulf War, to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait (1990-1991) as the Second Gulf War, and to the United States' invasion of Iraq (2003-present) as the Third War. This is different from the standard American nomenclature, which refers to a single Gulf War, that of Operation Desert Storm (1990-1991).

And at that point, what was the justification?

There is a difference of opinions, if you like. The justifications that were presented at the time are not necessarily justifications that I would agree to. But the justifications were that the Iranians were a threat to the stability of the world, that they were creating an anarchy in the region and that they had threatened the national integrity of Iraq, and the Iraqis were protecting themselves from the military threat from Iran. Almost the same justification of the Americans invading Iraq today: We attack them first before they attack us. I think pretty much that was the thinking behind it.

Of course, Saudi Arabia had nothing to do with the actual invasion of Iran. It was done without Saudi approval at all. But once Saddam Hussein had attacked Iran, like the Americans hereafter, he found that it wasn't so easy, and he started to lose. Then it was seen that an Iraqi defeat was not a good idea, and therefore the [Saudi] government, along with many others, tried to prop up Saddam Hussein in order for him not to be thoroughly beaten by the Iranians.

And why do you say that ... the justification was controversial?

Because not everybody believed Saddam Hussein's propaganda. ... The Iranians were on the verge of a civil war. They had their own problems. They weren't a threat to anyone else. They were a bigger threat to themselves. ...

Why don't you agree that Iran was a threat to you? Everybody was worried about the Iranians when the shah fell.

No, I think that is a mistake. ... The Iranians can't be a threat to Saudi Arabia. That is my opinion. ... Militarily, they don't have a chance. They don't have the capacity. Remember, they have to cross an entire sea in order to get to us, and that is very difficult. I mean, look at the Egyptians, how tough it was just for them to cross a canal. So imagine if you have a whole sea to cross. I don't see the Iranians being a threat to us militarily.

Who is?

Israel is a bigger threat, a much bigger threat, a bigger army. There is no sea between us. They can easily cross and do all kinds of damage. ...

Do you remember the oil boycott?

... I don't remember the details. Remember, I was only 13. ... I just felt that on a personal level -- in those years we would spend our summers in Cannes, and we had an Israeli family next to us on the beach. So I remember in 1972 how the Israelis were treating us. They were very aggressive with us to the point that when we built a sandcastle, one of their kids would come over and knock it over. And there were young men, part of that family, and [they] would be just sitting there and waiting for us to say comments so they could come and give us a good wallop.

The next year was the reverse. They were totally cowards and would not look in our eyes, none of them. I could see that difference. At a personal level, [there] was a huge difference from before '73 and after.

It's really important, this shift in the balance?

Oh, there was a shift, definitely. This little boy would never come and knock our sandcastle again. That was it. ... I felt much more self-confident being an Arab after '73. All of us had much more self-confidence.

There was the story of the embargo. Henry Kissinger told me on camera the story [that] if Saudi Arabia doesn't lift the boycott, they will come and bomb the oilfields.

Yes, I know about that, but that would not affect King Faisal. ... We heard that the United States had threatened Saudi Arabia that if they did not lift the embargo, they would be attacked. But King Faisal answered back, "You know, we come from the desert, and we have been living on camel milk and dates and things, and we can easily go back and live in the desert again." He was not impressed.

[At] the moment of the assassination of King Faisal, how did you feel?

I had just come back from school, and my mother was waiting for me, and she told me: "I have some bad news to tell you. ... Your grandfather has been assassinated." It was very shocking. ... I was quite overwhelmed because it wasn't just the death of a grandfather; it was an end of an era ... and it was very sad. ...

[After his death, was there a smooth transition of power?]

Yes, transitions are smooth in this country, because everything is arranged beforehand, and everything is done through consensus. The image that we have as one absolute monarchy with one monarch sitting on his throne dictating his will to everybody is not true, is not reality. This country is very much ruled by consensus, and the king is the person who manages the consensus. He creates the consensus ... between the three elements that I mentioned before, which is the ulama, the [royal family] and the business community, ... as well as the tribal elders. ...

So all four elements are crucial to building the consensus within this country. And especially in issues concerning succession, concerning the rule of a particular individual, their consensus is crucial and important. And so the transition of power from King Faisal to King Khalid was not at all surprising.

And what was King Khalid like?

King Khalid was the grandfather. He is the elder that is loved by everyone. He is a person who is kind. He was a very simple man, not arrogant. His period was a very prosperous period in this country's history. Enormous wealth came at his time. So as we say in Arabic, "His face was nice." This is an expression we have which means somebody who has good luck, who brings luck.

... The country was booming in his period. The pace of change skyrocketed during his reign. All the pent-up plans were suddenly, because of the large influx of funds, were able to be implemented. So things that normally would have taken 20 years to do were done in a few months. And it made people a little bit crazy, a little bit crazy.

You hear all kinds of anecdotes of people when they were traveling abroad hiring hotels or something like that. These kinds of extravagances [happened] because these people were kind of unbalanced by this kind of prosperity. The cities were changing. I mean, if you were going away for a summer holiday, for instance, you would go away for a summer holiday, and you would come back and you wouldn't recognize [anything]. You would get lost. You wouldn't recognize the city that you had left a couple of months before. Entire neighborhoods were coming up in months.

And everything was new for us. We were not used to that. ... Everything was new, new hospitals. We always had to travel abroad to be treated; now we could be treated in our own country, which was great.

But I think that pace of change was becoming too much. And one of the symptoms is the hijacking of the al-Haram, where it was sort of like a warning flash that "Well, hold on a minute; we will have to slow down; it is going too fast."

People say that King Khalid was not very interested in being king.

Yes, that was true. ... King Khalid was a person who believed in delegating power, which is not a bad thing necessarily. He had a great deal of trust in our crown prince*, who is our current king, as a man of great competence, and he delegated a great deal of his power to the crown prince, who had the appetite to do the work which the late King Khalid did not have. So there was this kind of partnership between the two, where the crown prince would do the actual day-to-day management of the country, and King Khalid would do the strategic, the higher level of ruling. ...

Editor's note: The current king, who was crown prince during the reign of King Khalid, is King Fahd. King Fahd was incapacitated by strokes in 1995-96. Since then, most of the day-to-day business of the Saudi state is handled by his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah. Read FRONTLINE's interview with Crown Prince Abdullah.

| For more information about the Saudi royal family, read "The House of Saud: A Genealogy."

... King Khalid suddenly got very ill. ... The transition was smooth, but suddenly it was a different kind of a kingdom. The reign of King Khalid is remarkably different to all the others, would you say?

It is the time when all the development that had started with King Abd al-Aziz, King Saud, King Faisal ... at the time of King Khalid, all of these developments had started to come into fruition.

All the young men who had been sent off to America to study were suddenly coming back to take over and to start managing their country. All the institutions which had been built up by the previous monarchs were now functioning and going at full stealth. All the development plans that had been implemented had been implemented, and now the infrastructure had been built and was running.

So it was really where the modern state started to take off. It was a sort of a fruition, if you like, of all that had happened before. This is why King Khalid's reign seems different from all the others. It is not the reign of the pioneers, if you like. It is not the frontier anymore. It is established.

Describe King Fahd.

King Fahd is a man of very wide experience. He is one of the kings who has wide experience in many of the different government departments and running the nation. He's a man who is hands-on. He likes to make decisions himself. He does not like to delegate, unlike some other kings. He's very much a hands-on ruler, and he wants to be involved in every detail, small or large, and to take a personal interest in it. ...

... How did you hear about the invasion of Kuwait?

Well, how I heard about the invasion of Kuwait is quite funny. I was here in Jeddah ... probably on business or something. Anyway, the phone rings in the afternoon. I had just come back from my office, and I am sitting in my home relaxing when the phone rings at about 3:00 in the afternoon. And my mother is calling; she was in Paris. And the voice was very disturbed: "How are you?" "Fine. How are things with you?" "Fine. What is happening with you?" "Nothing." "What's happening? What's going on?" "Didn't you hear?" "No, what happened?" "Iraq has just invaded Kuwait."

It was like a bomb had been dropped on me.

Because at the time, we didn't have satellite television, and there was a total blackout to the news. If you turned on the television, nothing. If you opened the radio on the Saudi channel, nothing at all. If they mentioned something, they would say the Kuwaiti delegation -- because they had come here to discuss their differences -- the Kuwaiti delegation and the Iraqi delegation were still discussing. Discussing! The whole country had been swallowed up! ...

It lasted three days, this news blackout, three days where we weren't told. And then eventually the government announced that this had happened. And after a while they began to carry CNN on the Saudi channel ... and you would see the CNN program and coverage, and then you would know what was going on. ...

So the Gulf War [1991] --

The Gulf War had to be. We needed to understand whether it was permissible to invite hundreds of thousands of Westerners to come on Saudi soil in order to fight another Muslim country, which is Iraq. We needed to have this explained to us: Is this acceptable or not from an Islamic point of view? And this is where we had to have the opinion of the experts, the ulama. They have to tell us yes or no. Is this permissible or not?

What is the role of the ulama in this country?

There is some confusion in the West. They are sometimes called the clergy, which is a misnomer. They are not clergy. There is no such thing as a clergy in Islam, at least not in the Sunni Islam. ... These people are more like jurists. They are legal experts, if you like. They are like the Supreme Court in the United States. They are the people who interpret the law and the constitution, which is based on the shari'a. ...

But did the Saudi government need their OK for the entrance of American troops [in 1991]?

I believe so, yes. They needed their OK in the sense that everything in this country revolves somehow around religion. Now, this is something that a Westerner will never understand, and I am not even going to try and make them understand because they simply won't. Everything in this country revolves around religion.

The reason is that the religion is the law. It permeates the culture. It is rooted in the history. It is part of the DNA, if you like, of the Saudis. Let's put it that way. Therefore, any response to any challenge has to go through the Islamic filter, has to be dealt with from an Islamic point of view, so whether it is the Gulf War or girls' education, you name it. ...

But [the ulama] said yes. Why were there some dissenting voices? What were the dissenting voices saying?

The dissenting voices are not unusual. In anything in life, there will always be two or more opinions. Anything controversial, anything that is massive and shocking, like the [arrival] of 500,000 armed soldiers with their equipment in the middle of your country, this is not something that is easy. Nobody is going to be thrilled to know that there is a huge mass of foreign army on his soil, no matter what the pretext or what the justification is. It is something that will make anybody uncomfortable.

I will give you an example: [What if] today there were 500,000 Saudi troops armed to the teeth in the middle of England? Wouldn't the English be [un]happy about that? Wouldn't they ask their Parliament, "Yes, can we do this? No, can we do that?" They would go to Parliament and debate it. Some of the Parliament would not accept it and say, "No this is wrong." But the most accept it and say yes. And they passed a law [saying], "Yes, they can stay here." This is the same thing. ...

Did Saudi Arabia have an alternative at that stage to bring[ing] in foreign troops?

No, I don't think so. Realistically, I don't think Saudi Arabia really had much of a choice. I don't think they could have avoided introducing the foreign troops as they did. It was simply not possible to deal with Saddam Hussein on our own, I don't think. We didn't have the military capabilities. Essentially, it was [a] force of arms we couldn't give out. We had a very small army, and we just couldn't.

Why do you have a small army?

We are not an aggressive nation. We don't need troops. We are not going to attack anybody. We have enough troops to defend ourselves. One of our biggest defenses is our size. We are a little bit like Russia in that we have strategic depth. And this is why we have a very strong air force. We have one of the most powerful air forces in the region. I think after Israel, we are number two. If any invader comes to us, we can deal with him.

But in the case of Saddam Hussein, it was an unusual case in that we needed to get him out of Kuwait. It is not a question of protecting [against] an invasion of Saudi Arabia; we needed to get him out of Kuwait, because from Kuwait he could then attack the oil in the Dharan, and then our air force simply would not have been able to stop [him].

... It is my opinion that we need to expand our land forces. I believe [that] after the Gulf War, we should have learned our lesson. It is that we cannot rely exclusively on our air force. It is necessary for us to build up ... an infantry army, not a tank army. I think we need more infantry.

You were saying earlier on in the interview that the First Gulf War led to the Second Gulf War. In which way?

Well, the First Gulf War, the Iran-Iraq Gulf War, left the Iraqis with a false sense of victory. They believed they had won when all they had achieved really was a stalemate. Number two, the Iraqis were in the situation where they had expended enormous amounts of their resources, and they had spent of their own people a lot. And for what? After eight years, what was it for?

So Saddam was in a very difficult situation to explain to his people what was it all for. So he had to manufacture some other kind of destruction to distract his people and also to keep his army occupied, to send them off somewhere. And this is a classic maneuver that many tyrants have done before: Just keep your people involved in one war after the other, and they will keep off your back.

I think also that he misunderstood the signals from the United States. With the famous, or infamous, April Glaspie [then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq] interview with Saddam, he was given an answer that was like the Delphic oracle: You can interpret it as you like. And he interpreted it as being a green light to go ahead and attack Kuwait. So this is how I think the First Gulf War led to the second which also led to the third, eventually. The third maybe was something that could have been avoided, but not the second.

But some people were angry with the [arrival] of [American] troops. Someone talked about the bin Laden plan, that he was proposing an alternative. ... What was that?

Personally I don't think that it was a very realistic plan. I don't think it is a question of emotion over mind. And this is something that many of the, let's say, very zealous people suffer from, is that they use their hearts more than their minds. ...

Were there any debates in the royal family itself about women driving ever?

Well, if you are talking about debates within the royal family concerning these issues, this would be debates at a senior level, which I am not part of. So I would not be privy to these kinds of debates. However, as a Saudi citizen, this debate is continuing throughout our society, and in my opinion and the opinion of other people, there's no real justification for not allowing women to drive.

I think the only problem with that is a question of logistics. You need to have women police officers to arrest women if anybody commits a traffic violation. You need to have special areas in the jails to put the [female] traffic offender. There are some logistical problems which are not really very major [that need to be] handled. I personally cannot see any real justification for the continuing prevention of women from driving.

But at the time when [the demonstration] happened [in Riyadh], how did you react to it?

Well, the incident of driving in Riyadh -- I think most Saudis saw it as [a case where] the timing was wrong. This was not the time to do something like that. The country was in a crisis. We were at war for the first time ever; we were in danger of being invaded; there [was] a danger of being attacked with missiles. The country was in a terrible state. And to go around driving at this point -- to make a point for the Western journalists -- was juvenile and silly. Personally this is how I saw it, and I think most Saudis shared this opinion. ...

[What was the reaction to the 1995 bombings in Riyadh and Khobar?]

People were disturbed by it. It was a very terrible thing. ... It was appalling. Nobody could understand why anybody could do this kind of thing. And it is not something that we are used to or we are familiar with in Saudi Arabia. We always pride ourselves on being a very safe and secure country. So it was quite shocking for us, at least from a personal level, that there was a kind of resignation that after all, we are becoming part of the modern world, and part and parcel of being modern is that you have terrorists who blow up things.

Do you think there was a message there?

Yes, of course there was a message there: The Americans have to get out; they have to go. ... That was the message, and they left, finally. ...

You see. it is a question again of mind and heart. Both us and the terrorists, we all agreed that the Americans have to leave. Nobody wanted the Americans here -- nobody. But it is a question of timing: When [would] they leave, and how [would] they leave? Nobody was in disagreement that the Americans had to leave. We don't want foreign troops on our soil. Nobody does. This agreement between us and the terrorists was really a question of timing and method.

[How had Saudi Arabia changed by the time Crown Prince Abdullah came to power in 1996?]

... Crown Prince Abdullah sort of took over after the incapacitation of our king. He took over the daily running of our country. And the country is a different country, again because things have happened in this country, and most importantly, it is the introduction of satellite television and the growth of Arabic-language satellite programs.

These satellite channels have been very, very open -- almost unheard of in the Arab world, forget about [in] Saudi Arabia. They have been addressing the problems of the Arab peoples, not just in Saudi Arabia. And they have really shifted public opinion [in] the way things are discussed throughout the Arab world, not just in Saudi Arabia.

In Saudi Arabia, it has led to much more openness in the press. Anyone who reads the Saudi newspapers, especially the Arabic-language version of them, will see a frankness which was not there five years ago. Issues that we could not talk about are now talked about openly. And this is a very good and healthy sign. It is another sign of [the] healthy evolution of our society and of our country.

Crown Prince Abdullah comes into the picture at this point in time [as] a man who is comfortable with this kind of environment, this kind of environment of much more openness, of much more open debate, much more willingness to admit when we have [done] something wrong. This is ... an important issue for a country at this juncture, when the leadership [is] going along with the trends of the people.

So he is a man who likes honesty and who likes things out in the open. ... Similarly, he is also a person who has strong opinions and has no qualms about stating them. ... He has a kind of moral courage, which allows him to stand up to what he believes is the right thing. And the letter to President Bush that everybody has spoken about is merely a reflection of his character, of his willingness to challenge the United States. ...

How does [that letter] come about?

It comes about from an accumulation we have been seeing [in] the United States over many years behaving in a way that is unjust, unfair and totally biased in favor of the Israelis. We hear a lot about the rights of the Israelis and all that kind of thing, but nobody talks about the rights of the Palestinians. Finally, I think Prince Abdullah was merely expressing the frustration that all of us feel in the Arab world, not just in Saudi Arabia, and the Muslim world as well. ...

He wrote a very strongly worded letter ... where he essentially told President Bush that either you be more fair, more equitable in your dealings with the Arab world, or we will simply find a different arrangement than the one we are having with the United States. We can no longer have the same kind of relationship that we have had for the last 60 years.

... This [letter] is all an expression that we can't take it anymore; we have had it up to here. And this was widely, widely popular, not only in Saudi Arabia, but throughout the world, even the non-Muslim world. Enough is enough. And this trend was building up, and it was given a setback by the events of Sept. 11 in the United States, When the U.S. was attacked, that sort of put everything on hold. Then the United States embarked on this worldwide war on terrorism. ...

How did you react when you found out that [15 of the 19 hijackers] were Saudis?

I was appalled. I was worried that they would be Saudis. ... I was worried that they would be Arabs or Muslims. And unfortunately, it turned out to be both. It was very appalling because I could see everything that was going to happen. ... I could see that the Americans would go on the rampage and that they would make this an excuse, if you like, to trample over the whole planet.

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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