2006 Speech

Keynote address delivered by Prince Turki at NCUSAR conference with Q&A
Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Turki Al-Faisal keynote address on “Saudi Arabian Constitutional Evolution” delivered at the National Council on US-Arab Relations’ 15th Annual Arab-US Policymakers Conference, Washington, DC October 30, 2006

PRINCE TURKI AL-FAISAL:  (Speaks in Arabic.)  John Duke Anthony gives me much too much credit.  When I left the intelligence department, I probably left my intelligence there as well.  (Laughter.)  But as he said, to be in this country and not to learn from that experience would be the ultimate in lack of intelligence.  So it’s been a wonderful experience for me and for my wife and daughter, who is with me here, to not only be in your country but to engage with people like yourselves and give and take and learn even more.

I was going to speak initially at this conference on a vision for the future of Saudi-U.S. relations, but I changed that because of an event that took place last week in Saudi Arabia, which was the formation of the Bay’ah Council, which is an important constitutional revolution in the governing of Saudi Arabia.  So for those who want to see what my opinions are on U.S.-Saudi relations, this paper is being distributed and given out to the press, but also I would like you to know what we Saudis feel about constitutional change and what it means to us as individuals and as a nation.

As you know, last week King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, announced the establishment of the Bay'ah Council, which is to formalize the succession process.  To call it the Allegiance Council, as I’ve seen now in currency, is a misnomer because allegiance is one-sided and connotes total obedience.  The Bay'ah is actually a compact, and it is a contract between the ruler and the ruled whereby the ruler obliges himself to protect, promote, and enhance the lives and property of the ruled; and the ruled, in return, oblige themselves to protect, promote, and obey the ruler on everything but that which counters the teachings of God.

The announcement is significant both because it is an important amendment to the Basic Law of Governance and because it is illustrative of the principles which have guided Saudi Arabia's constitutional evolution ever since King Abdulaziz brought together what was to become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

The Quran, as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, calls upon us to – (speaks in Arabic) – "take all our decisions through consultation."

The first act of Shurah, consultation in Islam, took place at the deathbed of the second Khalifah to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, 1,400 years ago. Omar the Khalifah called upon six of the Prophet's Companions to choose who his successor will be. Since then, this became the way in which Arab societies have chosen their leaders, in one form or another; most times paying lip service to the Shurah, and many times the process was even whimsical and even without Shurah.

But none of us can claim to have come close to the perfect form of government.  But the Bay'ah Council is a straightforward evolution of what the Khalifah Omar did.  It is clear and transparent, and it includes procedures in case of the incapacitation of the ruler and his successor.  It also allows for the ruler's choice of successor to be rejected by the Council and for the Council's choice to be chosen, even if the ruler does not agree.  Casting the ballot is an essential component of the election process.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is truly a remarkable reform of what has been the traditional way of deciding the succession.

In Saudi Arabia, the most important tradition has always been to follow the Quranic call of reaching decisions through consultation, while also maintaining a direct and universal link between our leaders and our people.  For hundreds of years, the people of the Arabian Peninsula have had the opportunity to express their hopes and grievances to their leaders during the Majlis held by each one of these leaders.  While it has become a more complex task in modem times, we have come up with new ways to respect this tradition, be it through the Majlis or local governors or the new municipal councils.

Saudi Arabia's constitutional evolution began when King Abdulaziz united the country, entered Makkah, where there was established a Consultative Council, or Council of Representatives in 1924.  The name, shape and role of this Council evolved over time but its primary function was to act as a focus for advice and consultation to the King in reaching his decisions.  Although King Abdulaziz was busy establishing a state and uniting its people, he assigned a great deal of importance to the setting up of this Council and thereby learned a great deal about the people of the Hijaz and the other parts of the Kingdom and their aspirations.

The Council evolved somewhat more slowly over the following decades, as the Arab world as a whole suffered from the convulsions caused by the creation of new states and boundaries under colonialism and dispersion.  The interwar period was not a bright period in the history of the Middle East, yet Saudi Arabia pursued its establishment of the institutions of a modem state.

King Abdulaziz was known for his Shu'ba as-Siyassia, or the political department, composed of learned men from all around the Arab world, which met on a daily basis to review Saudi and international events.  The King benefited greatly in his decisions from the varying and often opposing opinions that were expressed freely in this gathering.

But arriving at current times, the late King Fahd reorganized the way in which the Kingdom was governed and established a new set of regulations through the Basic Law of 1992.  These changes further underline the importance of consultation in Islam.  At the center of the Basic Law stood arrangements for regional government and a re-founded the Consultative Council, a milestone in the constitutional evolution of Saudi Arabia.  More recently, the establishment of municipal councils, half of whose members are directly elected, has again reaffirmed the importance of consultation and participation in Saudi Arabia’s constitutional evolution.

Consultation allows for the expression of many different views, not in the form of a duel but to discuss issues robustly and transparently for the benefit of the country.  It provides a forum for new ideas and serves the King by suggesting what steps are more important for the country.

I recall the history of this evolution in order to show that Saudi Arabia has followed a clear path in its constitutional evolution, establishing a state with modem institutions that is in tune both with the basic instructions of Islam and with the traditions of our people.  Saudi Arabia has been progressing towards its own form of representative institutions.  We have not reached the end of the road or the end of the path, but we have embarked on it with steadfastness and determination.

More importantly, Saudi Arabia's constitutional evolution is homegrown and consistent with the traditions of its people and the tenets of Islam.  Our institutions and system of government were not created in a vacuum, nor were they imposed from the outside.  They have come about by experience, by consultation and by a feeling for the participatory form of government which is in the interest of the Saudi people.

Essentially, ladies and gentlemen, we have chosen this progressive evolution because we believe it fits the needs and aspirations of our people.  We are not in a hurry to experiment with foreign interpretations of democracy or methods of government.  Saudi Arabia's own form of representative government will be fed, vitalized and grown through our assessment of what will best serve Saudi Arabia and its people.

We will make mistakes along the way, and we can be sure of that, but they will be our mistakes, not someone else's.  And we will invest all our energy in assessing our evolution and making the necessary adjustments when we see that we went wrong somewhere.  Therein lies the power of consultation and of having a constant awareness of people's needs and aspirations.  It allows for constant and healthy assessments of the cumulative effects of changes and decisions, and steady improvements in the interest of our people.

Many of you will be interested in knowing how the constitutional evolution, which I have spoken about, affects women's rights in the Kingdom.  The role of women in Saudi Arabian society is still very different from that which many of you are familiar with, but women have been an integral part of the evolution of Saudi Arabia, particularly in its social aspect.

If you remember, five years ago Saudi Arabia launched a National Dialogue in which women were asked to participate and to define their aspirations and ideas on change and reform in the Kingdom.  Their recommendations form an increasing part of Saudi Arabia's constitutional evolution and we are ensuring that women's participation becomes more visible and more substantive, as evidenced in the election of women to the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and to the board of the Engineers Association.

I hope that I have succeeded in giving you a clearer idea of where Saudi Arabia stands in its constitutional evolution and in constantly adapting its institutions according to the principles which have established their strength and effectiveness.  The changes that we will see over the coming years will be exciting for the prospects of Saudi Arabia and its people, and they will continue to respect our traditions and aspirations.  Saudi Arabia has moved well along the road of defining itself as a state that is both modem and in tune with its traditions, continually pushing forward in its constitutional and participatory evolution.

Thank you very much.


DR. JOHN DUKE ANTHONY (President and CEO, NCUSAR):   His Royal Highness has agreed to take several questions.  I will repeat them for the benefit of the media here.  One of them, Mr. Ambassador, is to what factors can one attribute the string of successes that Saudi Arabia has registered in its domestic campaign against violent extremists in the past year?

PRINCE TURKI:  The principal reason that these successes have taken place is because the people of Saudi Arabia have participated in eliminating these extremist individuals and their ideology.  There has been an interchange between the citizens and the security forces that is healthy and very beneficial for both.  During the last three years since the terrorist attacks in 2003, more terrorist activity has been prevented because of citizens informing on potential such acts to the security forces than any other reason.  And it is this engagement with the people that has really meant the success of the program that we have engaged in.

The other thing also is the leadership that King Abdullah and Prince Sultan and the government has taken in highlighting the wrongness of the ideology that is espoused by these extremists and these terrorists.  And along with the religious leadership in the Kingdom, particularly Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Asheikh, who is the mufti of Saudi Arabia and other religious leaders in condemning and casting as sinful the terrorist acts and activities.  This has elicited from the citizenry the kind of cooperation and opposition to the philosophy as well as the acts of the terrorists. 

One aspect that is not much talked about in our dealing with terrorism in Saudi Arabia is what happens when such extremists or terrorists are captured and brought to justice in Saudi Arabia.  Those who have not committed crimes in terms of killing and capital crimes are immediately engaged in a process that is based on reconnecting them with their families because Al-Qaeda and groups like Al-Qaeda act as cults, and the first thing they do when they recruit someone is they cut him off from his family, and then from his society and turn them into a brotherhood, if you like, or a sisterhood that believes in a philosophy and a cult leadership.

So the first act that the government does when it captures somebody and puts them in jail is to reconnect them with their families, and after a period of realignment with their parents or with their siblings or with other members of the family.  They are then put through a psychiatric program to evaluate their psychological and psychiatric condition for a few months, after which, having gone through that rehabilitation process, they are brought into connection with the religious scholars who challenge their ideology on a religious basis and show them that their views and interpretations of Islam are not only wrong but that there are alternatives to them which they may not have known about and which are there for them to take up. 

And so far, out of a number of 700 of these prisoners who have been captured over the last three years who’ve had connections one way or another with the extremist groups in the Kingdom, 400 of them have deemed rehabilitated and have been released from prison in the care of their families, but also the government keeps an eye on them to make sure that they don’t slide back to their wrong ways.  And over the past year, those who have lived through that program have prospered and continued to engage with their families and with the rest of the society without anybody falling back to their bad ways.

DR. ANTHONY:  The second question is more in the realm of international relations.  Your Royal Highness, would you share your feelings when courageous and bold and far-reaching plans for a comprehensive peace were ignored by the world’s more powerful countries and responded to with little more than “good idea”?

PRINCE TURKI:  I’m sure the reference there is to the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, which has been plaguing us for the last half century at least, if not more. 
All of you ladies and gentlemen know that there have been varying and a myriad of propositions and proposals and initiatives and peace offerings over the last 50 years.  In my working life, I’ve lived through the Rogers Plan, the Kissinger talks, the Carter Camp David peace proposals, several of Mr. Reagan’s plans, Bush Sr.’s Madrid conference and subsequent talks on that, and then Clinton’s Oslo agreements and now Bush – the present Bush’s Roadmap.  And all of these plans and formulations and permutations have literally dissected every aspect of the problem between the Palestinians and the Israelis. 

And there is nothing new to add to that equation other than the fact that all of these plans need to be implemented.  The United States, in its Roadmap, has given a way to achieve peace and the establishment of a two-state solution.  Couple that with the Abdullah Peace Plan of 2002 and you will get an end view to that process, which is two states, based on the ’67 borders, with Israel withdrawing from all Arab territories, including Jerusalem, in return for total Arab countries’ recognition of Israel and normalization of relations.  And the only thing lacking in all of these things is that nobody has put their foot forward, and we have to be clear in our views on this issue. 

The United States is the only country that can do the right thing for everybody in the Middle East, not only because of the size and strength of the United States, but because the United States is engaged and enmeshed in our political situation and has been for the last 50 years or so, whether it likes it or not.  And I don’t think it’s a matter of liking or not that should decide this year, but where are the basic interests of the United States?  The basic interests are for peace to reign in our part of the world so that we can turn to more fruitful endeavors and more contributive engagements with each other.

And even those among the United States, friends of Israel, we want you to remain friends with Israel.  We have no objection to that, nor do we have any inhibitions about that.  But that friendship should be used to push Israel to engage in the peace process and to allow the Palestinians the same kind of rights which are inalienable to all people in the world, and those are the rights for homeland and the state and the nationality which has been denied the Palestinians for the last 50 years.

It is that simple, and I think those who try to complicate it and try to say that perhaps this is not the right time to do something about that because the Olmert government is weak or because Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t have full control over the Palestinian Authority or the government, or because of this and that.  These excuses will continue with us, and we have heard them for the last 50 years. 

Implementation should be done now.  The United States devised the Roadmap; it needs to implement it.  And we in the Kingdom will do whatever we can to support whatever the United States does in that process.  A friend of mine, the Palestinian ambassador in your country, is sitting right here.  And he has a wonderful thing that he said a few weeks ago when he as asked about the nonaligned movement in the world today.  He said – and I’m paraphrasing what he said – that today there is no need for a nonaligned movement because there is only one power.  It’s a unipolar world.  What we need today is for that power to be nonaligned.  And that is such a true statement – (applause) – and that is coming from a Palestinian, one who has suffered the expulsion from his home and went through all of the difficulties that have come about.  But the U.S.’s responsibility is primary in this, and King Abdullah, many times, has engaged with President Bush to push forward the need for an immediate implementation of the Roadmap. 

DR. ANTHONY:  Mr. Ambassador, we have one other international question.  It’s a little bit to the east of Palestinian.  It has to do with Iraq, and it’s got two parts to it:  Are you offering President Bush and the United States a better approach to Iraq?  If the answer is yes – Ambassador, unless it’s privileged information, might you share with us what the broad outlines of that suggestion might be?  And if you’re not, why not?  (Laughter.)  And related to that is, from the vantage point of Saudi Arabia and its GCC neighbors, how might Iraq realistically manage to maintain its character as a unitary state?  How, if Iraq divides de facto and/or de jure into three separate, autonomous provinces, might one or more of these new Iraqs play a positive role, if any positive role, within the immediate Gulf region vis-à-vis its – or vis-à-vis its non-Gulf neighbors for that matter, and/or the broader Arab and Islamic world for that matter too?

PRINCE TURKI:  That’s some question.  (Laughter.)  Iraq is an issue of primary concern to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I’ve continued to say since I’ve come here that since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited.  And by that I mean that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government should engage with the United States in how and where and the wherewithal of the kind of relationship they will have with each other when American forces withdraw from Iraq.

We have never held back on any ideas as far – not just Iraq but any issue of concern to us in the area with our American counterparts.  On the issue of Iraq, before, during and after the military invasion took place, we shared our views with your officials clearly and above board and publicly because we don’t think there is anything to hide here.  It is a vital interest to you as well as to us that Iraq remains a unified country.

Those who call for a partition of Iraq are calling for a three-fold increase in the problems rather than a unified Iraq provides for all of us.  And although I heard earlier from my good friend and colleague in terms of a study on Iraq that he made –Mr. Nawaf Obaid - on the inevitability, in his view, of the partition of Iraq, or the civil war – some of you will say erupting and others will say that it is already there in Iraq.

My view on that issue is that it is practically impossible for Iraq to be divided on sectarian lines, or even on ethnic lines.  There is just too much intermingling of Iraqis with each other in every part of Iraq.  We see now, within the Shi’a community in Iraq, those who promote regional autonomy and those who opposed regional autonomy.  Why?  Because those who oppose regional autonomy live in a mostly majority non-Shi’a sections of Iraq.

If you take Baghdad, which is in the center of Iraq and which presumably, if there is a partition in Iraq, will be along the Sunni part of Iraq, how will you divide Baghdad?  Baghdad has a majority Shi’a population.  It has more Kurds living in it than in all of the cities in Kurdistan.  And if you take in the south, in the Basra area, there are more than 35 percent Shi’a Arabs living in the south and another 5 or 10 percent Kurds and other nationalities living in the south.  How are you going to remove them from that Shi’a sector or Iraq?  If you go to the north in Kurdistan, all the cities in Kurdistan, whether it is Arbil or Sulaimaniya or any of the other cities, have Arab and both Shi’a and Sunni and Turkoman and other subdivisions of Iraq living in them. 

To envision that you can divide Iraq into three parts is to envision ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, sectarian killing on a massive scale, and the uprooting of families and even the divorce rate in Iraq will shoot up 300 percent because a husband who is a Sunni will divorce his Shi’a wife, and a Shi’a wife will – Shi’a husband will divorce his Sunni wise, and a Kurdish mother will disown her half-Arab children, et cetera.  It is just, in my view, impossible to do that.

What we see today is an expression of the – first of all, the lack of authority of the government, which encourages people to turn to their basic sectarian and ethnic divides for self-protection.  Hence, the rise in militias and so on that, some of them, for political reasons, others for material gain or even for simply criminal activity, undertake the killings and the dislodgings that have been practiced in the last two years in Iraq.

But this is not going to continue like that.  Our hopes and our engagement with the Maliki government is to encourage them to extend their authority over all of Iraq and provide the daily requirements of stability and security that any society deserves anywhere in the world today.  And by doing that, you can go a long way in meeting the challenges of the insurgency that takes place in Iraq. 

DR. ANTHONY:  Mr. Ambassador, this will be the last question.  It’s a domestic one and it has several parts.  I’ll try to weave them together.

PRINCE TURKI:  You mean to Saudi Arabia or –

DR. ANTHONY:  Domestic to Saudi Arabia.  We have an election time – (Arabic phrase).

This one has to do with the World Trade Organization.  And everyone, I think, is quite conversant with the benefits, after 12 years, that Saudi Arabia was admitted in the past year.  What are some of the challenges, or perhaps the downside of it that pose issues for policies and interests?  And related to that, what is the Saudi government doing to generate jobs and hopes for a productive and bright future for its young people?  And related to that, when will Saudi Arabian women enter the Foreign Service and be full members of the Shurah Council, and what was the reason for excluding women from voting in the municipal elections, and will they be allowed to vote in the future?

PRINCE TURKI:  I thought this was going to be one question.  (Laughter.)  You always do this to me.  (Laughter.) 

Anyway, let me start with the issue of women and why they were excluded from the last elections.  I remember at the time I was ambassador in the U.K. and we hosted several Saudi women who came for various functions in the U.K., and the issue came up so I called the man in charge of the election process in Saudi Arabia and asked him whether women were going to be voting in the elections or not.  And he told me this time, no, they’re not.  And I said, why?  And he said, well, because the bureaucracy hasn’t worked as efficiently as we wanted them to in preparing all of the necessary accoutrements, if you like, of elections for women, whether it was identification cards or voting booths or transportation or any of the other things.  And I remember I told him on the phone, all of these sound like lame excuses; I hope you will not use them in the next elections.  And he said, no, in the next elections we’re hoping to have women voting on an equal basis for the municipal elections and then for other administrative and representative bodies in the Kingdom.  So I’m waiting to see what is going to happen in the next election, as all of you are. 

And what were the other issues?

DR. ANTHONY:  The downside, if any –


DR. ANTHONY:  – of WTO in terms of creating a better, productive future for the country’s youth.

PRINCE TURKI:  As ambassador to your country, I have not heard of a downside, yet there are many Saudi business people here.  One of them is sitting at our table here.  He would be a better spokesman on that issue, and I would not dare to put words in their mouths or to imply any of their thinking. 

What I know is that, like all bureaucracies, our bureaucracy, when it does function, it functions very slowly, and on the issue of WTO, remarkably this bureaucracy has functioned extremely quickly and very efficiently because over a period of 10 years we moved from non-compliance with any of the WTO rules to full compliance in the sense that we were accepted as members in the WTO.

Implementation, it will take time, and as we gather more experience and more exchanges with our partners, whether it is the United States or other countries in the world, we will go through a process of learning and doing better than we do now.  But I know that your trade representative is in constant contact with our ministry – with our ministry of trade on all of the issues that are still outstanding in their relationship with our two countries vis-à-vis the WTO.

But I have not seen that it has had a negative impact on our economy.  Our economy, as you heard earlier, is growing robustly, and not only because of the oil income but because the people have confidence in the economic system in Saudi Arabia.  Most of the public IPOs, whether for private enterprise or for government corporations, have been subscribed over many times when they have been issued in the Kingdom, which shows that the Saudi citizen wants to put his money in his country and the future of his country, which is good, and it is an indicator of where our people are going vis-à-vis trade and other issues.

So I have not seen a negative downside to the WTO yet.  There will be those, I’m sure, who have that view, but if they do, they can always reach whatever official or whatever newspaper to express their views about those issues.

DR. ANTHONY:  Some of the other questions we’ll save for this afternoon because they’re more appropriately addressed substantively to the energy panel and/or some reminiscing and forward gazing about the former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who will speak.
But His Royal Highness would have the final word.

PRINCE TURKI:  I just remembered there was also a question about job creation, and I don’t want people to think that I’m running away from that because job creation is a primary goal of all of the government’s activities for the past 25 years since the first five-year plan was established in the Kingdom.  And over the last at least three years, the establishment of these mega projects like the King Abdullah Economic City – and this week two more such projects are going to be announced: one in Jizan and one in Najran.  And in the last three months, other cities of that mega scale have been announced in Hail and I think in the Eastern Province.

So as you can see, all of these investments that the Kingdom is putting – and all of these investments, by the way, are going to be driven by private enterprise, not by government financing.  All of these projects are going to be geared towards job creation and employment for Saudis, men and women.  And already, I’ve been told by Minister Abdullah Zainal that in the next few days or weeks statistics will be coming out on issues like number or unemployed.  And I know I’m putting him on a spot here, but if there is any question in the future about why we didn’t put out those statistics, please refer to him and not to me.  (Laughter.)  Thank you.


DR. ANTHONY:  Mr. Ambassador, we thank you for the incisiveness of your comments and the candor and spirit of friendship in which you expressed them.

PRINCE TURKI:  Thank you.

DR. ANTHONY:  Thank you.