On the eve of the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal is fuming over continuing U.S. criticism of Saudi Arabia for its part in the atrocity. While admitting the need for Saudi internal reform, he charges that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not the Saudi social system, is the "festering ground" for terrorism. He cautions that if misconceptions about Saudi Arabia persist, it may cause an unbridgeable gap in long-standing U.S.-Saudi relations. As for America's difficulties in Iraq, the prince says, "We told you so."
TIME: Is all the criticism of Saudi Arabia harming U.S.-Saudi relations?
SAUD: The media certainly keeps at it. The Congress seems to be pre-occupied with everything that comes from Saudi Arabia, with the attitude that we are guilty until proven innocent. It is one of those never ending stories, until it finally reaches rock bottom. I hope by the time it reaches rock bottom, it hasn't done too much damage to the relationship.
TIME: Has it already damaged relations? You were upset when Congress recently issued its report on 9/11 apparently damning Saudi Arabia and then the Bush Administration withheld 28 pages of it.
SAUD: We are angry when we are accused without being given a chance to defend ourselves. When no matter what you do, it is considered a public relations gimmick rather than a real effort. That isn't the way that friends treat each other. If you are complaining about something I have done, and I do something about it, some appreciation is shown, amongst friends. Yet, whatever we do is just water under the bridge, and they go to another attack. It starts with the 15 people on the planes that created this catastrophe. Then, the accusation was that the ulema [Saudi religious leaders] were talking and encouraging [extremism], the schools were creating terrorists.
TIME: So, what has Saudi Arabia done?
SAUD: Now, Saudi Arabia is against all terrorists. Whatever justification [for terrorism] Saudis understood before, now they see they are at war with these terrorists. It is not true that the extremists are gaining the upper hand. We are fighting terrorists, pursuing them everywhere, closing the net on them. The government has arrested many of the ulema. The war, as the Crown Prince said, is a war against those who wage it, who encourage it, who support it, and even those who tacitly accept it. If there are in the pulpits of the mosques those who urge violence, they are removed immediately. In the schools, the books have been changed for the new school year. The instructions to the teachers have been changed. The [terrorist] money aspect is now completely controlled and your government knows it. In spite of all the effort, you still hear talk that "the schools are bringing out terrorists, the ulema are bringing out terrorists".
TIME: There is no link between intolerance taught in Saudi schools and mosques and the production of home-grown extremists?
SAUD: There are some elements in the books that are necessary to remove and they have been removed. But that they were a breeding ground, a festering ground for terrorists, that is not the case. The festering ground for terrorists was Afghanistan and is the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. It is not the social makeup of Saudi Arabia. You can see this in the makeup of al-Qaeda. Maybe they have some foot soldiers who are Saudis. All the leadership of al-Qaeda except for bin Laden are not Saudis. Why have we seen in the 9/11 incident nobody but Saudis? It was done on purpose [to harm U.S.-Saudi relations]. Unfortunately, those in the U.S., in the media or in Congress, who continue to make that argument, are falling into the strategy of the terrorists.
TIME: Is the criticism indicative of a new U.S.-Saudi relationship?
SAUD: There is nothing wrong with "a new relationship". The previous relationship had the characteristic of comfort. You knew nothing about us, we knew nothing about you, I mean the citizens of both countries. This has changed. I hope that we come to know each other better. But this will not happen if we are using untruths and lies and misconceptions about each other. If these misconceptions continue to rise, they build a gulf that is insurmountable. We try to fight that gulf. We are finding a hard time on the other side of the ocean.
TIME: How do Saudis look at America today?
SAUD: One major element is the policies of the United States in the Middle East. In the media every day, we see what is happening in Palestine. Public opinion is made by that. [People] see the violence, they see the indignity that the Palestinians are facing.
TIME: Do you have any interest or desire to change the strategic relationship with the U.S.?
SAUD: Absolutely not. We have had mutual interests, substantial economic cooperation and human-to-human contacts with the United States, which we believe both countries gain from. That's what we want to come back to.
TIME: Should we read anything into Crown Prince Abdullah's historic visit to Moscow in early September?
SAUD: We are almost neighbors. We believe both of us have an opportunity to gain in trade, commerce and investment between our two countries. It is not gamesmanship. If it does [have an effect on oil price policies], it would be a positive policy. One thing that nobody has complained about is Saudi policy on oil.
TIME: Are you threatened by ideas coming from American neo-conservatives aimed at bringing about democracy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world?
SAUD: All the discussions that we had [with the U.S.] on Iraq were on concerns about what happens after the attack. It is not diplomatic to say "We told you so", but we told you so, that things won't work out. Keeping the security element in Iraq and running the government, the water, the electricity, would be the important elements. Iraq was ruled by perhaps 2 million military and paramilitary, and a million Baathists. You do away with that, and how do you run the country, with 50,000 or 250,000 troops? It is unmanageable.
TIME: But doesn't democracy threaten the Saudi system?
SAUD: Turning Iraq into a stable country, how can this be disadvantageous to Saudi Arabia? We were facing a country that was attacking us militarily. We would much rather be threatened by democratic ideas than with Scud missiles and weapons of mass destruction. [In Saudi Arabia], real reform is being done with the intention of keeping the social cohesion and unity of the country together. We are not playing experiments in labs. We believe we are going at it with the ear of our leaders to the heartbeat of the people, what they expect, what they need and how far they want to go.
TIME: Even reform-minded Saudis complain that there is a lot of talk, but less action.
SAUD: They will see, but talk has to lead action, not the other way around. We are not going to have, as happened [with the Shah] in Iran, a revolution from the top forcing the population into something that they don't want.
TIME: How serious is the threat of al-Qaeda to Saudi Arabia?
SAUD: We believe we can handle it. And we have done a pretty good job of it, but this is no time to remain complacent, but vigilant. I hope we solve the problem and remove this cancer from our country. Everyone is shocked.