2006 Transcript

Saudi Ambassador interview with SUSRIS
Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Turki Al-Faisal interview with the Saudi-US Relations Information Service (SUSRIS), March 2, 2006

SUSRIS: Thank you for taking time to talk with us today. Let’s start with the current relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. You mentioned in your recent public statements that the government-to-government relationship is on solid ground, and that you have been charged by your boss with talking to the Congress and the American people.

PRINCE TURKI: That’s true, yes indeed. The government-to-government relationship is going very well. We have a saying in Arabic, which goes “alnas ala dini mulukihim.” The translation of that is “people follow the religion of their kings.”

So when King Abdullah was Crown Prince and met with President Bush twice -- and they actually became very good friends as a result of those meetings -- those who follow them in the governments have taken on the same empathy and the same sympathy, if you like, for each other. So the government-to-government relations have improved considerably since 2001 particularly during the last meeting in April (2005) in Crawford, Texas.

As you know that meeting was followed by a joint statement of both leaders, in which they stressed the common interests that bind the two countries and talked about how to improve the relationship between them, in terms of human exchanges, in terms of energy policy, in terms of the strategic alliance with the establishment of the Strategic Dialogue. This Dialogue has already met. The first time was in Crawford Texas between the two foreign ministers or foreign secretaries and the second time was in Jeddah last November. The next time will be in April or May this year in Washington.

There are offshoots of that dialogue, six working groups that deal with energy, security and intelligence, that deal with military affairs, financial affairs, visa and consular affairs and with another group which has a multiple purpose to it, a partnership in education and development of human resources in both countries. The first meeting of these subgroups is going to take place this month.

It is headed on the American side by Liz Cheney [US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and Coordinator for Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiatives] and on the Saudi side by me. It will have representatives from various government institutions on both sides.

From the Saudi side it is going to be composed of people representing the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Higher Education, Ministry of Information, the government human rights commission and of course the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and whoever we feel is required to talk about subjects that will be discussed.

We expect that on the American side it will be equally representative of various government departments whether it is homeland security or education and so forth and, of course, the State Department. These are the practical steps that have followed from the meetings between the King and the President.

Then there is the Congressional side. Our severest critics are in the Congress. And that is part of my brief from the King when I was coming here. I asked him how do you want me to deal with President Bush and the American people and he said, “Just be frank with them.” Since the government-to-government issue is going so well -- it is practically handled by the King and President Bush, they call each other on the phone, they send emissaries between them -- my concentration is more on reaching out to Congress, both houses, and meeting with the critics of Saudi Arabia. I can hopefully answer their concerns and questions about the Kingdom and express to them our concerns and our questions about how we view the relationship from Saudi Arabia to the United States.

Then of course the other concern we have is talking with the American people. All the surveys we have seen on Saudi Arabia showed that before September 11th the country was relatively understood. It was among the middle range of countries that American people felt were friendly, and on certain issues they felt there was a special relationship between us. Since September 11th that position has dropped dramatically. Part of my brief is going to be to try to recoup the previous position that Saudi Arabia enjoyed in the American public’s view and hopefully try to improve on that. That is why an outreach program by the embassy has been devised. It is reaching out to the people in America in their home states. It is part and parcel of that mission.

SUSRIS: The visits you have made in the few months since becoming Ambassador to the United States have been reported in the press - Georgia, Arizona, Texas, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania - as upbeat and positive sessions.

PRINCE TURKI: That’s right.

SUSRIS: How would you characterize the reaction to your visits?

PRINCE TURKI: I found the reception extremely gratifying. A great deal of warmth, which is not surprising to me, and a great deal of curiosity. People want to know everything about Saudi Arabia.

I remember when I came to school in the United States some years ago. On the first day I was going into the school a young boy came up to me and slapped me on the backside and introduced himself and I introduced myself and he kept asking me questions. Where are you from? What is it like? It was very much like the Bedouins in Saudi Arabia -- very engaging and appealing and made me feel at home in those days.

I think that spirit continues. There’s a great thirst for information and knowledge, not just about the country as a geographic entity but about the people and the culture and the history. This effort is not confined to me alone, as you know there is an outreach program that private enterprise has undertaken over the last few years, with business people and professionals coming on their own time to meet with American organizations, government and non-government. Some of them have also shared with me their view that there is a great deal of curiosity about the Kingdom. So by going out to these various places in America I hope to be able to respond to this curiosity.

SUSRIS: What do you see as the greatest area of interest about the Kingdom when you meet with American audiences?

PRINCE TURKI: I think it is mostly the issue of culture. Certain givens in your culture, in the view of some Americans, look to be almost diametrically opposed to what they consider Saudi culture or Saudi background. But when we sit down together to talk about these issues and the questions are posed an understanding develops.

Take, for example, the role of women in Saudi Arabia. The picture here is that our women are wrapped up in these black bags and kept tied to their bedposts, absolutely devoid of any character or initiative or personality. Yet when we sit down and talk and especially when they see Saudi women engaged with them it changes the picture for them completely. Saudi women are pretty much like women everywhere.

Historically women have been downtrodden and one must admit that we men have been extremely, if you like, misogynistic toward women but that is changing. It is not just changing in America it is changing everywhere, including Saudi Arabia. I remind people I meet that when the US Constitution and Bill of Rights were written and signed by the founding fathers and became the law of the land the role of women in the US was not very good. They were not given the right to vote, they didn’t have inheritance rights, couldn’t form their own businesses or anything like that. It took you two hundred years of development and social education and mobility and so on to reach where you have reached.

America’s democracy is still a work in progress. It hasn’t reached the point that you will accept as the final perfect system. It is the same with us. We have our ideas published and written down in the Koran and our Bill of Rights is defined in the sayings of the Prophet. We have a very high value system for a society and in practice we still have a very long way to go to reach these heights, but we are moving in the right direction.

Last night I was at a dinner where the question arose about the role of women in Saudi Arabia. I mentioned to the dinner guests that in 1962 the literacy rate for Saudi women could not have exceeded five percent. By 2002 it was more than 80 percent. So we made a dramatic jump in 40 years’ time due to education. I mentioned that today in Saudi Arabia there are more women than men educated in universities. And they clearly outperformed the men completely in academic standards and achievement.

That change occurred because the introduction of education in Saudi Arabia for women occurred in 1962. And so the picture for women in Saudi Arabia is not as bleak as some would have you believe or some actually see it. There are other issues that are viewed like that. It’s not that the Kingdom is not devoid of discrepancies if you like, or contradictions about issues whether it is human rights or women’s rights or labor laws, et cetera, but we are moving in the right direction. We are moving forward. We are not going backward.

SUSRIS: Can we focus on Congress and the political atmosphere in the United States? The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia was roundly discussed during the 2004 presidential campaign season, as I’m sure you know. Last year there was continued interest in Congress about the relationship. A number of legislative initiatives, the Accountability Act and so forth, surfaced criticisms of the relationship. How do you see the task before you of communicating your view of the bilateral relationship to the Congress?

PRINCE TURKI: Well, I’m a very practical person and I think for us to pursue the aims of what our leaders have set out for us, which is a joint interest, joint policy, joint strategic outlook, etcetera, then we must translate these directions into practical steps and practical achievements. However, I do understand there is a great deal of questioning about Saudi Arabia in the Congress.

In September I presented a copy of my credentials to the Secretary of State and that way I became official. After that, and before presenting them to the President in December, one of the issues in Congress was the hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee headed by Senator [Arlen] Specter. The title of the hearing was “Saudi Arabia, Friend or Foe.”

Frankly, I thought that was a bit insulting to Saudi Arabians because we have never been a foe of the United States. On the contrary, in the last 60 years or more we have always considered ourselves to be a good friend of the United States and felt that the US looked upon us as a good friend.

We stood with the US in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s when there was a Cold War as very firm allies in the fight against Communism. We carried out responsibilities in our part of the world. We felt we could be helpful in that fight and spent much time and energy and money and sometimes even human life in the fight against Communism.

The 80s and the 90s were a time of changes when the Soviet Union was disappearing and we consistently remained a strategic ally of the United States despite the differences that we may have had. And we had important differences like on Palestine. But even there we agreed with the United States that the strategic aim of both countries was to reach a peaceful solution to Palestine and the issue of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs.

It was Saudi Arabia that led the Arab world with the Fahd Peace Plan in 1981. That for the first time presented an arrangement for all the Arab countries to recognize the existence of Israel. More recently the Abdullah Peace Plan which was more specific and more detailed. It calls not just for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories, including Jerusalem but also for total recognition of Israel by the Arab states and normalization of relations. And this policy of making peace with Israel that Saudi Arabia spearheaded has now become the policy of all of the Arab countries. The Arab countries in the annual Arab summits have committed to it.

So this hearing about Saudi Arabia as a foe to the United States clearly indicated that there was a great deal of ignorance about the role of Saudi Arabia. One of the first senators that I met when I came hear was Senator Specter. I went and called on him. We talked about what his concerns were, which he had expressed in that hearing. They were mainly about education and the direction of religion in Saudi Arabia and so on. Hopefully I have reached with the senator a respectful friendship, if you like, where I can supply him with information that he requires. He doesn’t have to search for an interlocutor when he has concerns or questions to ask. He knows that I am here and that I am available as are members of the embassy and my staff. So developing relationships is very important. That is just one example of what I am trying to do. There are others in the Congress, both houses, that I have met and that I am in the process of meeting.

SUSRIS: What is your reaction to the current tempest over acquisition of leases to terminals in some American seaports by a company in Dubai?

PRINCE TURKI: I tell my American interlocutors that it would be amiss for me to comment on the deal between America and the UAE. But one thing I found is that in the debate on the issue, at the beginning, there was an attempt to make it into almost a racial issue and the President put a stop to that. He came out forcefully, which we are very grateful for. He said we cannot deal with this as an Arab issue or a British issue or a Chinese issue. So he took it off the table as a racial issue, which was very courageous of him and we are much gratified by that. He is that kind of man to step forward and take a position clearly that people know where he stands and that he stood very forthrightly on that issue. So it is now a question for your government on issues of security and procedure and economic welfare and things like that.

SUSRIS: Let’s talk about the relationship in the war on terror. Most accounts have been positive about cooperation and coordination. However, in January the Los Angeles Times ran a story critical of the Kingdom’s efforts. It said Saudi Arabia had done well in fighting terrorism inside its borders but needed to do more in the global war on terror. What was your reaction?

PRINCE TURKI: Well I thought that was reflective of several things. First of all it was reflective of ignorance on what Saudi Arabia and the United States have been doing together. Secondly it was, the way it was framed, it seemed to have an intention of attempting to affect a very positive step that was taking place at the time. The article came, I think, two days before Vice President Cheney arrived in Saudi Arabia. The reporter quoted from statements that had been made a year or year and a half earlier. And it selectively quoted from a Treasury Department official’s comments. The vice president was coming to Saudi Arabia. If the United States government had any questions or concerns about Saudi Arabia’s role, its efforts and cooperation he should have discussed that with the King directly. Why would a government official put it in an article before the Vice President comes? So it gave the impression that it was an attempt by somebody, we don’t know who, to put some kind of a wedge between us before the Mr. Cheney came to the Kingdom. Of course, it didn’t succeed. The Vice President had a very good visit with the King and things moved on from there.

But the media of course, is.. ..another of the briefs I have here, along with the Congress and the American people, is to engage with the media and to tell them the embassy is at their service. They don’t need to depend on so-called anonymous sources or unmentioned government officials. If they want they can come down directly to me and get the information. We will tell it to them on the record. We have no problem with that.

SUSRIS: So, how would you characterize the coordination and cooperation in the war on terror?

PRINCE TURKI: The relationship is very good. And it is not only a result of September 11. I was Director of Intelligence in Saudi Arabia for 24 years, and the five years before that I worked in the intelligence field as a liaison with foreign intelligence services including the CIA. So from the very first day I took up my post in 1973 I was dealing with US intelligence departments on the exchange of information.

In those days, as I mentioned earlier, there was the Cold War on communism and Marxist ideology. You know all of the negative effects of Cold War era. The Kingdom at that time was targeted by Communists and Marxists and others as a target of terrorism. In the 60s Saudi embassies were attacked and their diplomats were kidnapped. There was an attack on our embassy in Sudan where the American ambassador was murdered by Marxists terrorists.

So the issue of terrorism with us is a long lived one and not a newly experienced one as some would have you believe, particularly in the West. And all of those years since 1973 when I first started working, until 2001 when I left my job in the intelligence field the cooperation with the United States was the ultimate -- in the exchange of information, training, joint operations, you name it.

The first tide of terrorist attacks was against Saudi Arabia in 1995. Two years later a group of al-Qaeda operatives were trying to smuggle arms into the Kingdom from across the border and they were captured. That led to us and the United States to exchange more information. Bin Laden had by then begun his propaganda campaign, primarily against the Kingdom. He included the United States in his demand for the withdrawal of what he called crusader troops from the Holy Land.

Prince Sultan, the present Crown Prince, was the defense minister when he met on a visit with President Clinton. He proposed to the president that a joint committee be set up between our intelligence services to pursue terrorism in general, but more importantly al-Qaeda and Bin Laden in particular. George Tenet was then director of the CIA and I was still director of the intelligence services in Saudi Arabia. We headed this joint effort of American and Saudi intelligence officials from all the intelligence communities, not just the CIA and the Saudi General Intelligence Department. We met regularly, not at my level, or George’s level, but at technician’s levels to exchange information from the day that it was formed until I left. I am sure it is still standing. Another committee that was established, this was after September 11th, has American officials sitting with Saudi officials in our financial sector. They are pursuing what is termed the money trail for terrorist activity to make sure that none of it out of Saudi Arabia. So all these efforts are ongoing and in place.

SUSRIS: Can you talk about the specific areas of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States during the Cold War? The business of intelligence is by necessity secretive but it may help many Americans appreciate the relationship if they knew more about Saudi Arabia’s support of the United States in those years.

PRINCE TURKI: Now it is history. There is no more Soviet Union or the Cold War so one can talk more freely about it now than before without compromising either ones’ conscience or ones’ national interests. Two incidents I will describe to you. The first involves the purchase of Soviet weapons so that Americans and we can discover their technology and so on. And through various second- and third-hand business entities we bought Warsaw Pact tanks that ended up coming to Saudi Arabia and from there went to the US to be inspected and studied and so on.

That was just a very small portion of what we did cooperatively with you. Another example, of more strategic and geopolitical significance was during the time when the United States was going through the post Watergate assault on your intelligence services by your Congress. There was the Church committee and so forth. By about 1975 I think there was almost a directive from your Congress that there should be no more intelligence work done outside the US until you had reviewed everything. It ended up having that affect anyway -- the laws that were passed and the regulatory criteria that your Congress put on the intelligence community.

At that time the Soviet Union was expanding into post-colonial Africa. For example, from Portugal there were Mozambique, Angola and various other areas that were just becoming decolonized. They were becoming Marxist regimes. The year before that, in 1974, Ethiopia had gone Marxist. Somalia was still in between, it was still a Marxist regime but they were jealous of the Soviet interests in Ethiopia. Ziad Barre at the time was beginning to try and wean himself away and made a deal with the American government to do something in Berbera, which had almost become a Soviet base at that time.

The French actually came up with the proposition, at that time the Director of Intelligence in France was a man called Comte Alexandre de Marenches. This was during Giscard D’Estaing’s presidency. It was the end of 1974 and Watergate had already taken its toll. I think that President Nixon left office by that time. There was great turmoil and Comte de Marenches made a visit to four countries in our area. He visited the Shah of Iran, he came to visit King Faisal before he died, he went to visit President Sadat and he then went on to visit with King Hassan of Morocco.

His proposition was that our American friends were in trouble, their intelligence collection and capability has been diminished to say the least and literally they didn’t have any more money left to do anything. So we, as friends of the United States, we should get together and try to do something to face the Communist threat on our doorstep in Africa. All the way from the Red Sea, in East Africa to the Atlantic Ocean there was a belt of countries that were turning Communist or sympathizing with the Soviet Union and so on. So the leaders from these four countries agreed to set up what was then called the Safari Club. This was the code name for it. The Safari Club included these four countries, Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia plus France.

We actually engaged in countering Soviet expansion in all of these areas. Whether by money, by human resources, by intelligence work -- all kinds of skullduggery you can think of in the intelligence field was used. We were successful in some areas. If you remember, in the late 1970s there was an attempt to attack the Congo from Angola with Cuban troops that had been brought by the Soviet Union to support Angolan troops. They were trying to separate the rich province of Shaba in the Congo from the rest of the Congo.

The Safari Club provided the military wherewithal, the money and the intelligence to successfully counter that effort. It also initiated the support for the late Jonas Savimbi in his fight for Angola against the Communist regime in those days by giving him financial aid, intelligence, training and things like that. In Mozambique there were also efforts made. Djibouti was becoming independent at the time and there was a threat to it from Ethiopia which is a next door neighbor. So support was given to Djibouti to become more stable. And so on and so on, this was a very important group of countries that got together in support of the United States which was incapable at the time. We were able to fill the vacuum and provide some kind of assurance even to the African countries who were scared of the Communist threat but couldn’t rely on the United States at the time. All of us informed the United States that this was our activity and that we were going to do it. I think they expressed gratitude at the time and that’s how things worked. The ultimate example of Saudi-US cooperation was Afghanistan. It is well documented. I don’t have to go into detail.

SUSRIS: Can we bring it up to a more current time period? There has been precious little disclosure and reporting of Saudi Arabia’s support to the United States during Operation Iraqi Freedom. But what there has been in the press, especially an article by AP’s John Solomon in 2004, suggests that Saudi Arabia, despite having misgivings about the wisdom of invading Iraq, was instrumental in the success of the military operation – including such measures as overflight and refueling, prepositioning of special forces, command and control support and more discreet measures. Can you comment on this area in as much as you are able to provide some level of understanding?

PRINCE TURKI: What I can tell you is when the United States came to us and asked for help in providing overflight and other facilities. At that time we agreed, despite the fact that we said we were against the American invasion and that we thought the consequences would not be as predicted or envisioned by some of the experts of the Pentagon. Because of our friendship with the United States we agreed to do certain things.

But I think what was more important was that when Saddam Hussein fell Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to move in and try to help the Iraqi people with humanitarian aid and medical aid. This was before there were any issues of a government in place or anything like that. Saudi support went to all parts of Iraq -- from Basra to Kirkuk and Mosul and the Kurdish parts of Iraq. In Baghdad we set up a field hospital when everything had broken down especially in the health services. This was a military field hospital, which treated something like 2000 Iraqis a day until the situation became untenable because of the lawlessness. Then we had to withdraw our people from there. So we were very much engaged in trying to help the Iraqi people.

SUSRIS: Can you talk about Iraq and how the United States and Saudi Arabia will deal with the situation there?

PRINCE TURKI: Well I think all of us have agreed to help, not just Saudi Arabia and the United States, but equally important the contiguous countries which at the instigation of Saudi Arabia two years ago started meeting. When Iraq had formed a government it was invited to participate. These were Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Turkey, Syria Jordan but it also included Egypt and Bahrain. And so these contiguous counties have been meeting periodically to see how we can be of help to the Iraqi government.

More recently, of course, the Kingdom has been very active and encouraging in developing the political process in Iraq, in helping all Iraqis, without distinction, to work together and join together. There was a meeting in Cairo in November under the auspices of the Arab League for all the Iraqi factions. It had the encouragement of Saudi Arabia. After that, because of our contacts, and other countries’ contacts, the last elections that were held, the parliamentary elections held in December the Sunnis were engaged more and more. You can truly say that those elections are legitimate and have provided for a sovereign representative body that the Iraqi people can turn to and say this is our parliament. We have all agreed, the contiguous countries in our talks with the United States and other countries involved in the issue, Britain and so on, that it is up to the Iraqi people to decide their future, that we should not interfere inside Iraq and that if someone does we should point it out and tell them not to do it.

If it is a question of withdrawal of American troops or British troops or whatever it is, that is the decision of the Iraqi people to take, not for anybody else to do that. This is what is happening and I think perhaps there is a silver lining in what happened in Samarra and the subsequent bloodbaths that occurred in various places, including the attacks on Sunni mosques and so on. All the political leadership in Iraq now is engaged in forming a government of national unity and are willing to compromise, something they were not willing to do before this bloodbath.

SUSRIS: They have stared into the abyss and are stepping back?

PRINCE TURKI: They have. Absolutely. So this is where Saudi Arabia is going with regard to Iraq.

SUSRIS: What is Saudi Arabia’s view of developments in the Palestinian Authority, the parliamentary victory of Hamas?

PRINCE TURKI: On Palestine and Hamas, the Kingdom’s position is that we have called on all Palestinians to adhere to the Arab League peace plan and the roadmap. If you look at the press reporting of the GCC foreign ministers meeting in Riyadh that took place yesterday you will see a reference to that. We are going to continue to give support to the Palestinian people through the various international bodies, whether it is the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank or whatever, and we think the Palestinian Authority is committed to the Abdullah peace plan and the roadmap. And that is how the Palestinians should move forward.

SUSRIS: So funding for the Palestinian Authority would go through third parties, not to Hamas?

PRINCE TURKI: We have never given direct funding to Hamas, nor have we given direct funding to Fatah. It has all gone through international bodies including the Arab league of course,

SUSRIS: In the same way as the EU?

PRINCE TURKI:  That’s right, and in the same way the United States has been dealing with the Palestinian Authority.

SUSRIS: Thank you, Prince Turki, for taking time to share your views on these important issues with our readers.

PRINCE TURKI: You are welcome. Please come back.