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prince saud al-faisal

The Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud discusses here the course the government needs to take in balancing the forces of tradition and modernity without damaging "social cohesion." He emphasizes that the nation has to change in its own way, "You cannot bring ready-made solutions to a coutnry that 's completely different. Saudi Arabia is not New Zealand." Responding to the question of whether a monarchy with absolute authority fits the 21st century, Prince Saud is firm: "This government has shown versatility and permanence that I think belies this issue of anachronism. We have faced many conflicts. When oil came in the '50s, they said this country cannot survive because the wealth will change the underpinnings of government. But it's here. In the '60s, when they were calling Nasser the wave of the future, Nasser went away. The government is still here. After the liberation of Kuwait, they were saying that hundreds of thousands of American troops in Saudi Arabia would surely mean the death knell of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is still here. For an anachronism, we have shown tremendous permanence, I think." This interview was conducted by producer Martin Smith on Dec. 15, 2004 in Riyadh.

One of the recurring themes in Saudi Arabian life is the balance between those who look to the West as a model, and the more cautious ulama. And your father introduced girls' education, and he introduced television. Can you recall memories of that time and the negotiations that he had with the ulama?

Well, for the girls' education we had a lot of talk, because many delegations came to visit him from the areas that refused girls. And he seemed to have dealt with it in a manner that disarmed the opposers of women's education.

Now, he told them one thing: "We're going to open the schools. If you want to send your daughters to the schools, you have every right to send them to the schools. If you don't want to send your daughters to the school, you have every right not to send your daughters to the school. So what is the problem?" I think in doing so, he really took away the contentiousness of the issue. And if there is one thing that is ingrained in his nature, it is that aspect of solving complicated issues.

How do you explain to outsiders the importance and the power of the ulama in this country?

The real important thing is that this is a country of faith. The importance of the ulama [comes] from the belief of the people. The explanation that they always require about their beliefs and asking the ulamas about it and the fatwas and the contact between the regular person who seeks to follow the tenets of Islam in the proper fashion -- [that] is really the main contact between the ulama and the regular social relations.

photo of prince saud al-faisal
I think we cannot return to a healthy relationship, even though we try, until the basic ill, the poison that festers in the region is solved, and that's the Palestinian question.

So it is not a political power or even a spiritual [power], because we have no connection between an individual and God. The relationship is direct, and we don't have a hierarchy that exists in the Christian churches, maybe the Catholic Church. But if there is an influence that that exists for the ulama, it is from the belief and religiousness of the people and their seeking to always follow the proper Islamic role.

I asked the crown prince [Abdullah] the other day where the legitimacy of your family's rule comes from. He says it comes from Islam. An alternate explanation would be that it comes from the fact that your family unified the country. Where is the legitimacy based?

You must think about what Saudi Arabia was before it was unified: fighting between the tribes, raids from the tribes on the cities, absolute lack of security in the country. Saudi Arabia is also a holy place where you have the pilgrimage [hajj]. The pilgrimage was for all practical purposes stopped because of the insecurity that the tribes created.

At the same time, there were practices that had nothing to do with Islam, superstitions and idolatry, so the two things joined together, what we call purifying Islam after these superstitious elements had come into the practice of Islam and pacifying the country to make cities safe, [to] safeguard the pilgrimage.

And this is where the legitimacy of the family comes from, the purification aspect of the religion from superstition and pacifying the country to make it a habitable place for citizen[s].

And that legitimacy [remains] today.

It still remains today because of the will of the people. If people didn't want the regime to stay as it is, then I'm sure they [would find] their way to do without it.

Prince Bandar said to us that this perhaps is the only country in the world where the government is the avant-garde and the people are far behind. You agree?

Well, the government is leading the reform. This is absolutely true. And I think this is a reasonable thing to do. The government had the wherewithal to start the reform process with the advent of oil. They opened schools; they opened hospital[s]; they opened many of the services that brought modern life to citizens in Saudi Arabia for the first time. Remember, this is a country [where] in my lifetime, my mother lost six children because of [the] inavailability of medication and hospital[s].

And you find instances like that everywhere. But the government was able, through the advent of oil, to provide the services, and then there seemed to follow from there the process of modernization, of having a modern state of ruling by law, having laws rather than just dealing with issues on a tribal basis. And so it was a natural evolution that the government took over the role of modernizer, reformer, and it continues until today.

One of the most striking things in looking at the history is how there was a relative openness between, say, the oil-boom years beginning in '73 up until about '79, and then the events of '79: The fall of the Shah of Iran, the takeover of the mosque in Mecca [al-Haram] and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan all led to a kind of retrenchment of sort. What was going on in that period, and [what was] the reaction to the modernization, the fear of modernization?

Well, people -- what do they fear in modernization? Again, I would like to return to the similarity with the United States, because you just had an election where people voted mainly because of fear of the permissive society, all the elements of permissive society.

The inordinate fear here in Saudi Arabia, I think, is that modernization is going to change the social structure of the country. Permissiveness is going to come here. The family life is going to disappear. Children who listen won't listen to their elders and so forth.

These are the elements that are creating the greatest fear in the House of Saud [and among] the Saudis about modernization. And I think what is necessary now is for the government to explain that you do not need to modernize and fear a breakdown of the family. On the contrary: that you can do that and keep the family values and keep the family together, and modernization will only improve your life.

Things like medicine or things like education, things like opening the field of knowledge to the people of Saudi Arabia are not going to be dangerous to the social cohesion of Saudi Arabia. This is the basic role that the government has to plan.

But since '79, if I can take you back to those events, you've had the development of a kind of political Islam that found its most negative expression in defense of 9/11. Some Saudis have said that many mistakes were made in '79 [that turned] back the clock, if you will, on the process of modernization, on the process of women's rights.

You had a variety of things. During that period also, there was an influx of the Islamic [Muslim] Brotherhood into Saudi Arabia. And that was sort of formalized, organized, with theories and ideology that had nothing to do with the ideology of Islam.

The ideology of Islam existed in Saudi Arabia without the theology of the Islamic Brotherhood. As a matter of fact, Hassan al-Banna, [who] was the leader of [the Brotherhood] -- and you must have heard this story a million times -- ... came to King Abd al-Aziz and asked him -- he wanted to open a branch of the Islamic Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia. So King Abd al-Aziz looked at him nonplussed, and he said, "What do you mean, a brotherhood of Muslims in this kingdom of Muslims?"

We're all brothers in Islam. Why would we need a branch of the Islamic Brotherhood?

And that was very wise of him, because as it developed that this Islamic Brotherhood was really a new theology that was introduced in the Islamic world, I think as a reaction [to] imperialism, Saudi Arabia was the only country that was not occupied [by] an imperial power.

And perhaps we were lucky then, and that is why we remain for such a long time without this theology that Islamic Brotherhood introduced. But since the measures taken against them [in] such countries like Egypt and Syria, there was an influx of them, and where did they work? They worked in the education and in other profession works. And that's when the problem started here.

Was the government too soft on them?

In that respect, who could predict how things would develop? Certainly they misused their hospitality. We dealt with them honestly, and they dealt with us underhandedly. And that is a mistake that's not going to be repeated.

And this would be the roots of the Islamic fundamentalists who have formed cells, and it's out of that experience --

Maybe in my reading of it. You will probably find experts who will be more sophisticated in their response than I am.

I doubt it. Let me jump to the present a little bit. The reaction to 9/11 was a great shock in Saudi Arabia.


But yet on May 12, 2003, you had another event that seemed to be a small event in terms of the United States, but was a great event here. Can you explain what happened to the consciousness of you and to others around you at that time?

I'd rather speak of 9/11. This is what has been misunderstood so greatly in the United States. The shock of finding out that it is Saudis who did this awful, horrendous crime is beyond description. As an individual who studied in America, [has friends] in America, who's lived his life in contact with many Americans, I couldn't believe that something like that could happen from the hands of a Saudi.

That is why you had a period of denial. People refused to accept that this was Saudis doing this. Imagine if you wake up one day, you have children and find that one of your sons is a mass murderer. How gut-wrenching a discovery is that? This is what Saudis felt during that time. Added to that gut-wrenching feeling is the accusation that followed that Saudi Arabia is responsible for it, for 9/11. That just was beyond any description --

There's another troubling layer to this, and that is that you can read, for instance, the open letter of Sheikh Safar al-Hawali in which he told Bush that there was a wave of joy across Saudi Arabia after the events of 9/11. How did you respond to the fact that for some Saudis, there was celebration?

Because there is no society that lacks deviant and crazy people. ... No Muslim is joyful at the expense of another Saudi. Safar al-Hawali was not expressing Islamic conviction then; he was expressing Safar al-Hawali. And if Islam is going to be taken as reflecting Safar al-Hawali rather than what the prophet and the Quran said, then it is going to be a sad day.

Let me turn up the level of complexity here if I can. The United States invaded Iraq. You had counseled them not to go, that it would be a difficult and perhaps disastrous venture, I believe.

I thought it was not going to work. I thought it was a matter of mathematics, for me at least.

What did you tell [then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell or others in the U.S. administration?

We told them that nobody at all questions the United States would be a victim in Iraq. It is a forgone conclusion that American arms will defeat Iraqi arms, especially since it is a weakened Iraq after the first [1990-91] Gulf War.

But the question that kept harping at us is what will the general who enters Baghdad, what decision he will take that next day? What's going to happen to them, especially since all the army was disbanded, all the government was fired? And who's going to rule Iraq if you have that? And this is why I say it was a matter of mathematics. Saddam Hussein had perhaps two million people keeping control of Iraq. The United States and its allies have close to 150,000 people. How do you make that work?

What has been the consequence to the U.S.-Saudi relationship of the situation as we have it today?

Well, the confusion that came from 9/11 touched everything. In terms of work with the government, that continued unhindered. We were talking to each other. We were consulting. We were telling them our opinion. Sometimes they took our opinion, and sometimes they didn't take our opinion.

But the general environment around the relationship was on empty at the time. Lot of suspicion [was] built by the media, overextended by the media, utilized by political figures in the United States, whether in the Congress or outside of the Congress. And it created a feeling of suspicion and an unhealthy situation.

The current process of reform -- reform can imply problems, can imply the need for change. How would you describe what it is that you're trying to fix, if you will?

I would call it modernization. Reform is part of modernization. Reform indicates somehow that something was bad and you want to repair it, although this does not explain everything. Something may not have been bad, but you still have to change it, like changing the investment laws in Saudi Arabia.

Modernization in Saudi Arabia I think can best be explained by saying that you want to apply good governance, because after all, even democracy is a system that was applied to provide good governance. The important thing is applying good governance, not the system that applies good governance.

Plato, in The Republic, he was seeking good governance. And when they made him the philosopher-king, he did such a bad job that he was driven out of the city. But all political reforms [were] in pursuit of good governance, even the situation where he was asked about this.

He said, "Well, democracy may be a very bad --" [I'm] not saying the right word, probably. Had it not been for the rest of it, he thought that democracy was the best way of reaching good governance. In our part of the world, in Saudi Arabia in particular, we believe that in seeking good governance here, we have to do it in our way and the way that serves our people and the way that keeps the social cohesion of our people together, which is a most important element for the king.

You cannot bring ready-made solutions to a country that's completely different. And Saudi Arabia is not New Zealand; it is Saudi Arabia. You must develop a system to achieve good governance that is adaptable to conditions in Saudi Arabia and to the requirements of the Saudi citizens.

You've got critics who will say, "Look, this is an anachronism." Saudi Arabia is the last great monarchy. ... England is a monarchy, but this is a real monarchy where the crown prince or the king rules, and some people would say it's an anachronism.

They may say that, but it is a government that is in transition. An anachronism is something that is against nature. If it were against nature, nature would have dealt with it in its own way. This government has shown versatility and permanence that I think belies this issue of anachronism. We have faced many conflicts.

When oil came in the '50s, they said this country cannot survive because the wealth will change the underpinnings of the government. But it's here. In the '60s, when they were calling [Egyptian president Gamal abd al-]Nasser the wave of the future, Nasser went away. And the government is still here. After the liberation of Kuwait, they were saying that hundreds of thousands of American troops existing in Saudi Arabia would surely mean the death knell of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is still here. For an anachronism, we have shown tremendous permanence, I think.

How much is that permanence due to the close relationship you have with the United States? Or is that presumptuous?

It is the real world, and perhaps we have carried more burdens because of that association than advantages.

Can you elaborate on that?


The fatwa that came out from the 26 clerics, including Safar al-Hawali, implying that all who were able to oppose the American occupation of Iraq, not just Iraqis, this was done without consequence for these clerics, which sent a message back in the United States that the Saudi government was not condemning.

No, they did condemn. But supposing we had taken them all to prison? The first objection was, "Why were they put in prison?" To my mind, the best solution would have been to have carried them and sent them to Iraq to fight [because] they should have thought other Muslims should fight.

Did you counsel that to the crown prince?

No. I -- (Laughs.)

It's quite a Solomonic solution, I think. They were not jailed, but yet there are three liberal reformers at this time who are being held. That again sends a message. It confuses some in the United States. So I ask with due respect, how do we explain this?

There's no problem with that. These are people who went on trial because of things they have done, according to a law in Saudi Arabia. And the trial is going on openly. And rather than an indication of arbitrariness, it is, I think, an indication that we are doing things openly; that these people went against the laws of publication in Saudi Arabia. ...

Crawford, Texas. You went to Crawford, Texas, in August 2002. Was the invasion of Iraq on the agenda at all at that meeting?

Most of the discussion was on the Middle East problem. Most of the discussion was on the Palestinian question. And I think the most important outcomes of Crawford -- remember this -- have come after the president announced his ideas about a Palestinian state living side by side with [the state of Israel]. And King Fahd had brought the issue of peace with Israel and the unanimous decision over Beirut.

And the discussion went in great detail about this issue. And the crown prince was, I think, very effective in showing what a human tragedy the Palestinian people are facing because of Israeli problems in the region. And the most important result that came out of that was the promise that both these men made to each other, the president and the crown prince, that each side will do his best, will work as hard as he can to bring both sides to the negotiating table in order to achieve the aim of having two independent states living side by side in peace and harmony.

Did you feel disappointment when you saw the United States going off that issue to become preoccupied with the invasion of Iraq? It was only a few months after that that they began to make the case publicly for the invasion of Iraq, in the fall of 2002. So I assume it was somewhere on the agenda there in Crawford.

I thought that had the Palestinian problem been worked out as a priority, things wouldn't have gone the way they have. ...

It is a political problem. For too long, the Arab world and the Islamic world have seen the bias of the West's promises. They have come to accept that the West and particularly the United States have a stake in the security and safety of Israel.

Having said that, what the Arab and Muslim countries cannot fathom is how this turns into backing the indiscriminate policy of Israel against the Palestinian people. This is the question. This is the root of the trouble. This is the reason why the Arab world and the Islamic world are against the Western countries, and against the United States in particular.

Why back Israel? All right, back its safety. If somebody's attacking it, you can protect it. You can defend it like you defended Kuwait. You defended other countries. But how on earth does this justify backing Israel in the policies that it's doing against the Palestinians? This is what is not understood.

What's the response that you get when you express this to your counterparts in Washington?

Not a response to me directly. ... Needless to say, the policy that they tell you is that the Palestinians have to stop terrorism, have to reform their system, and all the rest of the position that is taken against the Palestinian[s]. But yet the question is that Israel is actually destroying the Palestinian people with indiscriminate actions.

Nobody tells [Israel], "Where are you going? What are you doing? Stop. This is illegal. This is against the United Nations Security Council resolution," let alone coming to the aid and succor of the Palestinian people.

You said the crown prince was very effective in getting across to George Bush the human situation with the Palestinians. How was he able to do that, and why did you think there was a follow-up on his part?

I think he showed him the human side of the crisis -- what happened to the Palestinians, how they are living.

He made a decision to come with some tools to do that, some pictures and so on.

There were pictures. I think a cassette also was brought. And the story is not hard to tell. What happened to the Palestinian[s] is a real tragedy of tremendous human consequence, and this, I think, to the credit of the president, he felt the full impact of it at that time.

How did he respond?

He responds very positively, that he will do everything that he can on his side to bring about the solution to the Palestinian question. And the crown prince would do everything in his power to help in this ... because I think it would have been primarily to the advantage of the United States to have done that, especially if the policies of the United States as they evolve were what they are. Had they solved the Palestinian question, they would have been much more successful in the policies that they had followed.

So where does this, at the end of the day, leave this Saudi-U.S. relationship that goes so many years back, to the U.S.S. Quincy meeting? Where does this relationship stand today?

The relationship is, I think, a strong relationship with the government. We have a very important and good working relationship in terms of public opinion in both countries. A great deal has to be done to explain and to return to the health of the relationship as it was before.

But this is the duty of both of our governments to do. I think we cannot return to a healthy relationship, even though we try, until the basic ill, the poison that festers in the region is solved. And that's the Palestinian question.

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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