2006 Transcript

Transcript of Prince Saud Al-Faisal interview with US print media
Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud Al-Faisal interview with US print media at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, May 17, 2006

Prince Saud Al-Faisal: I think the quickest way to do this is to see what you want to talk about, not what I want to talk about. I will be happy to field any questions you may have because we don’t have that long time.

Question: Could you talk a little bit about how you think things are developing with Iran, and whether you think the effort by EU and the US to put together some sort of carrots-and-stick approach is…

Prince Saud: Well, we’re hoping of course that a diplomatic solution would work, and would allow us to have a third option rather than the two bad options that are there, either having atomic weapons in Iran or taking them out, therefore causing a reaction by Iran in the Gulf area. Like everybody else, we hate to have two bad choices, so we are looking for a third choice that we hope will be through diplomatic channels.

We in the Gulf Cooperation Council are sending an emissary to Iran to talk about the situation. Iran is looking for a leadership role in the region, and one of the responsibilities of leadership is to work for the stability and security of the region and not to cause instability by adding a destabilizing issue like atomic weapons and proliferation in the region. And we hope that we will have a hearing from the Iranians on this and they will join us in our policy of keeping the Middle East and the Gulf region free from atomic weapons. It’s the best policy.

Q: When is the emissary going?

Prince Saud: He is working his schedule with them now. I suppose he will be with them in the next few days.

Q: Who is the emissary?

Prince Saud: The Omani foreign minister.

Q: What is your view on the idea of the Europeans offering Iran a light-water reactor, and does it seem to you that from the Iranian perspective, the longer they wait, the better the deal gets?

Prince Saud: Well, there is talk in Iran that threats occur before we develop weapons of mass destruction, and they use the Korean example: It’s only when Korea had the bomb that diplomatic process was used and not the threats. But that is comparing different circumstances, and I think it would be foolish to allow for the situation to deteriorate without doing much about it.

Q: Do you have any objection to the light-water reactor as part of the negotiating package?

Prince Saud: No, not at all. On the contrary. If they can reach an agreement, that would be the best thing. Of course, in nonproliferation, the genie came out of the bottle when you allowed one country to have – I’m talking our region – to have atomic weapons, and once you do that, it is very hard to argue the case diplomatically that no other country can have the same treatment. This is why in order to deal with the situation, it needs a clear policy of having the whole region free of weapons of mass destruction.

Q: Mr. Minister, last time you were here you expressed deep concern with the situation in Iraq, I think you even went so far as to say the situation could devolve into civil war. Are you a bit more optimistic, and could you talk a little bit more about Iran’s role?

Prince Saud: Well, we’re hoping that Iran’s role will be positive in Iraq. Positive, I think, is to work for the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq and allow for the government to be a government of national unity working towards that objective. If this happens, this certainly would increase our optimism.

I think the proof of the pudding will be how they handle the issue of federalism in Iraq as called for by the constitution. If it moves beyond the red line of dividing the country into separate entities with the resources not shared, that would be a tragic consequence. But if they use federalism in decentralization, more efficient government, more efficient response to the requirements of the regions and equality in the sharing of the wealth of Iraq, then it will be a workable solution.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about the situation in the Palestinian territories, and the effort by the Quartet to block funding for Hamas?

Prince Saud: Block funding, we talked about that extensively with them in New York, and we thought that was the wrong policy to do. The logic was that if you’re dissatisfied the results of the election brought a so-called Hamas government – of course, we always warned about elections, sometimes they bring results that you don’t want and that’s why we haven’t applied this system yet in Saudi Arabia – but there you have it. You’ve got a government elected representing the Palestinian people, and once you have that you say I don’t want to talk to it, and I’m not going to help the Palestinians so they don’t think I’m supporting the government.

To us, that seems a twisted logic. Logic says, the Palestinians are living under subsistence level now, you keep help away from them, and where do they go? And here you’re talking about Palestinians, who are the most educated Arab population of the region – doctors, engineers, teachers – and the facilities they provide for the Palestinian people, if you do harm to that, if you do not help them, you are really taking away the real supporters of the peace movement of the Palestinian people. You’re adding radicalism to the rank and file of these people, and you’re not harming the government. You’re only adding radicalism to the Palestinians. So instead of them calling on the government to support the peace process, they will be going the other way.

The other element is isolating them. If we need the new government to move in any way, the only God-given way of communicating with each other is talk, dialogue. If we don’t talk to them, how do we convince them to change their attitude towards peace?

We believe now that they have worked out a mechanism for aid to reach the Palestinians, we hope that this mechanism is efficient and that it will be timely. Because they are in dire need now. Salaries have not been paid for months in the Palestinian territories, and one can see the effect already.

Q: I think there were about $70 million in Arab League funds stuck in Cairo that can’t be transferred.

Prince Saud: It’s more than that now. It’s stuck in Cairo and cannot move. There is money in Saudi Arabia that is staying there, there is money here that is blocked, in Europe also. It’s a sad situation.

Q: Have you requested that the administration lift those Treasury restrictions or do something that allows that money to get there?

Prince Saud: The point is to get the money where it should go and not where somebody may use it. And we have worked out a very good program between Saudi Arabia and the United States for preventing money going to terrorist organizations. Some of these measures may apply very well to this problem.

In any case, two days ago, they have reached a formula in the Quartet in Brussels. We don’t know the details of it, I am only hoping that it is an efficient and timely one to allow for the free flow of money to where it is needed in the Palestinian areas.

Q: Mr. Minister, could you talk a little bit about the state of the threat from Al-Qaeda in the region now, particularly in light of the one attempted attack on oil facilities in the Kingdom recently? What do you think the state of the threat is? What is the extent of it within the Kingdom itself, and what’s being done about it?

Prince Saud: The solution for this terrorist threat has to be worldwide, and this proves it. There has been a lot of success in Saudi Arabia in breaking up cells of Al-Qaeda people. But it shows that unless you can deal with the recruitment, you will keep having others come and take the place of those who have been lost. So you must deal with the root causes of this and the reasons for the recruitment must be dealt with. And it shows one other dangerous element. It shows the change of tactics. Once they see that they are not succeeding in one tactic, they will change direction. Now they are attacking facilities. We are trying to do everything we can to protect these facilities, obviously. But this is why we think the establishment of a center under the United Nations auspices would be a good way to deal with terrorist acts, because it is a matter of information. Live information, unless it reaches concerned side, then the terrorists are one step ahead of you. But if the information is in your hand quickly enough, especially in the area where the operation is taking place, they you’re ahead of the terrorists.

One battle that is all-important is to have the people on your side. Once we crossed that bridge in Saudi Arabia, our response has become more effective to the threat. And this is what needs to happen everywhere where there is a terrorist threat.

Q: Mr. Minister, two questions. Was there some sort of plot by the individuals in Libya to assassinate the King of Saudi Arabia, and what bearing does that have – if any – on the recognition of Libya by the United States. The second question is, what, if anything, is Saudi Arabia doing about its nationals in Guantanamo, including hunger strikers, etc?

A: Well, I don’t think the United States extended relations with Libya because they tried to assassinate King Abdullah. We forgave, but we didn’t forget in Saudi Arabia. And I think the United States also is aware of the information, but the United States is a superpower. It’s a country with a global policy. It has relations with all kinds of countries, and that’s as it should be. So we have absolutely no inhibitions about it.

The other question?

Q: There are a fair number of Saudi nationals in Guantanamo.

A: Tomorrow or after tomorrow the first 16 of them.

Q: You mean they’re being sent back? The first 16 are going back to Saudi Arabia from Guantanamo?

A: To Saudi Arabia from Guantanamo, yes.

Q: Is that a public fact?

A: Well, it is public now.

Q: How many more are there and what is going to happen to them?

A:  That is not a public fact yet. But we will announce them as…

Q: What will happen to the 16?

A: They will be incarcerated and checked, and we see what the proof against them is. If the proof against them justifies trial, they are put on trial. If they prove guilty, they will be incarcerated. If they prove innocent, they will be let out.

Q: Was it difficult to reach this moment where you get these 16 back to Saudi Arabia?

A: Well, it took us how many years to get them back? It hasn’t been easy, but we are glad it is being solved. The families of course are clamoring for having them back, and they are first to have their minds eased, having them back home. They expect, the families, those who are guilty to be punished, and those who are innocents will be let go.

Q: Will you be able to provide the names of these 16?

A: Now? No. The families have to know first.

Q: When are they going back?

A: In the next few days.

Q: Is there any possibility of a death sentence for them?

A: Death sentence? Well, the punishment is going to be decided by the courts.

Q: But is that a possibility?

A: It depends on the courts.

Q: Your Excellency, Syria has been saying recently that it’s looking at other options to get the Golan back. How do you understand that?

A: We haven’t heard it and I really don’t know what they mean by that. What option were they using before? If they mean a non-negotiated settlement of the Golan, that I think will be counter to Resolutions 242 and 338, and counter to the Arab peace plan. But I don’t think they mean a violent choice.

Q: With your permission, Your Highness, could we come back to Hamas? I wonder if you see any evidence that Hamas is prepared to moderate its views about Israel, and if not, why should the West, which has laws against entities that espouse terrorism or attacks on civilians, have anything but a hardline policy? After all, Saudi Arabia doesn’t speak to Al-Qaeda, to my knowledge or recognize it as a negotiating partner.

A: Well, there are differences, of course, between Al-Qaeda and Hamas. Al-Qaeda is a purely terrorist organization that is acting on its own. I’m not justifying Hamas’ views of terrorist acts, but they consider themselves a liberation movement. But to say that there have been no negotiations with terrorists, this is not true. The British talked to the IRA.  So the issue of not talking to terrorists is … Also, President Clinton had discussions with the IRA at the time they were carrying arms. So the principle is not always followed in that respect.

What we are saying is, Hamas, now there is a government. True, the government is made of people of Hamas, but this government is now responsible to a new constituency. They have to work for the entire of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people who voted for them are those who voted for Oslo, they accepted the Arab peace plan, who accepted Madrid, and 242 and 338. These are the new constituents of the new government. If you use inclusion rather than exclusion, if you talk to them, they can be convinced of the advisability of pursuing a peace process if they are assured of equal treatment of any conditions put on one side are not excluded from being applied to the other side.

I think it is a misnomer to call it a Hamas movement. Just like when Mr. Begin formed a government, we didn’t call it the Stern government. It was the Israeli government. And he got a peace prize for that. So what is the difference between the two? I think we have a possibility of a fresh start. You have two governments not tied to their fixed positions in the past, and we hope that the start of negotiations happen before they have a fixed position.

The only thing that worries me is this policy of convergence on the part of the Prime Minister of Israel, what he calls convergence, unilateral act. I would rather call it a policy of diversion. It’s trying to divert away from the Road Map, it is trying to move away from the vision of the President for a two-state solution for living peacefully together, it is moving away from the Arab peace plan for immediate recognition and open borders between Israel and the Arab countries. In a sense, it is moving away from the basics of the peace process.

Peace in the region, especially with the threat of now weapons of mass destruction – and I don’t just mean atomic, but other weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical – walls and fortresses are no longer the things that give you safety. The thing that has obstructed moving in a realistic fashion is the insistence on putting the issue of the security of Israel ahead of any other consideration. Israel demands to have complete security before it starts negotiating a peace process. It is exactly the reverse. You achieve peace and then you have security. If you have complete security, what do you need peace for? This is the insidious logic that keeps people from talking to each other. No normal situation has ever existed where one side rely on security as the only measure of its being in an area. Israel cannot live in the region in spite of the people in the region. It must make peace with the people of the region to be secure, and not the reverse.

Q: Do you take the US administration at its word that it hopes and intends for Hamas to change through the current policy of isolation?

A: We are arguing the point, needless to say, with them strenuously that it is the opposite that is true. It is only through inclusion that you may change the position of Hamas. We all talk to them. We have a strategy in the Arab world, a strategy of peace, negotiations, and settlement of dispute through negotiations. And may I say, the threat that the conflict is causing – 70 years, for God’s sake, is a long time. We are almost reaching the record of the Hundred Years’ War in Europe. We may reach it sooner than later and have the record in this issue. Isn’t it time that we live? Children that are born there don’t even know what the story is about, what the fight is about. All they know is that bullets are being shot at them, they are being killed, their homes are being destroyed. Let’s move away from that. Isn’t it time in the present to move away from that conflict? Especially since it has such wide-ranging effect on everything, including terror. These terrorists find recruitment from causes like this, when they see disparities that are unjust. For a girl of 17 to put dynamite on her body and go and kill herself in order to kill innocent people. Isn’t that crazy enough for us to see that this war is creating inhuman reactions in the people of the region?

Q: Your Highness, forgive me for asking a perhaps argumentative question, but by the logic you’ve just eloquently stated against Israel refusing to recognize Hamas and the government, why has Saudi Arabia not recognized Israel, joined Jordan and Egypt?

A: We will recognize Israel when there is peace. This is exactly like arguing security before peace. If you’re in a state of conflict, you make peace first and then recognize each other and have diplomatic relations. But the Israelis want everything the opposite way. They want to satisfy themselves on everything that they want without giving the other side the same privilege. If Hamas or the government of the Palestinians now – and I think that is a better name to call it than the Hamas government, let’s call it the Palestinian government, at least we think of it as a government of politicians that will do what is necessary to stay in office – if they demand things that are unworkable, that are impossible to achieve, it is just stymieing the effort. 

You remember the period when we were talking after the Madrid conference of confidence-building measures, of regional meetings for peace and prosperity for the greater Middle East, we attended conferences where we sat in meetings with Israelis and we went that road. We took that road. But in the final, we were disillusioned because it led nowhere. It appeared that the only thing they wanted to have was to normalize relations with the Arab countries and not move on the peace process.

Q: Just to clarify something, when you say that if the Americans or the West would talk to Hamas, you believe they could be convinced, is that based on conversations you’ve had with the Palestinian government, or is that just a feeling you have in general?

A: No, it is because we talk to the members of the government. And we asked them point blank if they have a different strategy than what the other Arab countries have. And they said no that they hadn’t. But they had one condition, and that is a condition of no conditions. If you put condition on one side, you must put a condition on the other side. If one side is to compromise, the other side must compromise also. A negotiation is not just everything you want and nothing to give.

Q: Your Highness, to go back to the issue of security. Security is something personal. Have members of the Palestinian government indicated in any concrete way, give assurances to the Israelis not about conditions but that things will be safe for a certain period of time.

A: Yes, they have made a statement that they are willing to give an extended period of cease-fire as long as negotiations continue. And one of the things they promise to do, and I think this is one of the things the Palestinian people will hold them to do, is to provide security inside the Palestinian territories so that not everyone who wants to fire a Katyusha rocket will be able to do so, or anybody can start war on his own terms, that the government is the only real authority. If they do that, they will have accomplished a great step forward in the unity of the Palestinian position.

Thank you very much.