Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki Al-Faisal appeared on CNN Late Edition Sunday and discussed a number of issues, including allegations that Saudi Arabia was allowing money to flow from wealthy individuals to terrorists, the escape of al-Qaeda members from a Yemeni prison, the sinking of the Egyptian ferry Al-Salam 98, the Danish cartoons which have sparked protests through the Muslim world, Saudi support for the Palestinian Authority, and Saudi-US energy relations.
[full transcript of interview ]
Asked to comment on a Los Angeles Times report from last month that Saudi Arabia still allows money to flow from wealthy Saudi individuals to terrorist groups through Saudi charities and relief organizations, Prince Turki Al-Faisal said: “Saudi Arabia has implemented the cutoff. No single penny leaves Saudi Arabia today through any group or organization for any charitable or other activity at all."
Prince Turki added that "all the bank accounts of all charities in Saudi Arabia have been stopped from exporting any money anywhere. Regardless of the non-formation of this commission, that is still a work in progress." The ambassador said that although there is a joint standing US-Saudi committee handling these issues, Saudi Arabia has invited U.S. Treasury officials to come and look for themselves. "Just a couple of weeks ago Stuart Levey from your Treasury Department...visited the Kingdom, and he looked at all of these measures that we have taken, and when I saw him in Riyadh, he told me that he was happy with the visit, that he would still have to review what he looked at. And we are going to get together to see what conclusions he has reached."
Prince Turki took issue with the Los Angeles Times report. "Some of the rhetoric that is used, as in that [Los Angeles Times] article, I think, is offensive to us. Here is a victim who is accused of putting the knife to his throat. I think that is unfair and that if they looked at the facts then perhaps they would change their mind.”
Addressing the prison escape of at least 13 convicted al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, Prince Turki said in that a prison break by al-Qaeda militants was not something unique to Yemen and reminded the views that last year al-Qaeda prisons escaped from the US-run Bagram prison in Afghanistan. Prince Turki added that he has confidence that Yemeni security forces would likely capture them because the militants have nowhere to run. Asked for his reaction to the sinking of the Egyptian ferry Al-Salam 98 in the Red Sea, Prince Turki responded: “I wish I could tell you more than what you can read in the papers and hear on the radio. The investigation is ongoing. The rescue attempts are continuing. Some people have been rescued from the sea on both shores, Egyptian and Saudi, but the death toll is very high, and it is a very much a tragedy. It reminds me of a tragedy that happened several years ago as well on a similar ship that was crossing the Red Sea between the Kingdom and Egypt. And hopefully, the authorities will get to the root of this and prevent it in the future.”
Prince Turki said there was no indication of a problem on the ship when the ferry the Saudi port of Dhiba. He confirmed that there was bad weather in the Red Sea at the time of the tragedy.
Asked how Saudis are reacting to the publication of sacrilegious cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in the European press, Prince Turki said: “Let me just begin by saying that the cartoons are offensive. They are absolutely horrible depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, a man esteemed not just by Muslims but even by non-Muslims, and these things I think should be handled with care and with sensitivity. "
"From the beginning," Prince Turki said, " I think there were on both sides, there were perhaps people entering into these issues without necessarily gauging or judging the effects of them. And on both sides, I think there must, there should be quiet and a return to talk rather than burning down or looting or stoning of buildings and so on.
Prince Turki added that the Kingdom is not a country that is prone to violent public demonstrations. "The people express their views more calmly and more discreetly, and they do call up people like officials and express their views about them. There was a group of people who went to the Danish embassy in Riyadh to protest the cartoons and the Danish embassy received them, I believe, if I’m not mistaken."
The ambassador told Wolf Blitzerr that there is "no danger of anybody being stoned or hauled off or lynched if that is what the fear is.”
Asked how cartoons in the Saudi press can similarly lampoon Jews, Prince Turki responded after seeing examples of such cartoons shown by Wolf Blitzer reportedly published by al-Yawm and al-Watan, the nature of such cartoons, while “offensive”, should be looked at in light of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Once that conflict is resolved, such cartoons would similarly disappear from the Arab press.
Asked whether Saudi Arabia will continue funding the Palestinian Authority if Hamas forms the next government, Prince Turki said the issue will be dealt with when the situation arises. For now, there is an interim Palestinian government, which the Saudis continue to support financially to the tune of around $200 million through the Arab League, and more funding through international and nongovernmental organizations.
Prince Turki reiterated Saudi support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and that Hamas will have to go along once it assumes authority.
Asked to respond to President Bush’s statement during his State of the Union address of the need to end the country’s “addiction to oil,” Prince Turki said what actually took him by surprise in that statement was Bush’s reference to “Middle East” oil, when the US imports only about 15% of its oil needs from Saudi Arabia. Prince Turki added that the statement also came as a surprise because just last year King Abdullah and President Bush had agreed on a joint oil policy in Crawford, as part of which the Kingdom would increase output and work together with the US to expand refining capacity. Prince Turki pointed out, however, that he had a positive meeting with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley the next day on the matter, and the two countries “are talking about these issues.”