Prince Saud Al-Faisal: The Architect of Saudi Diplomacy

Prince Saud al-Faisal (AFP photo)

Prince Saud al-Faisal (AFP photo)


This column appeared in Arab News on July 12, 2015: 

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

In this increasingly chaotic part of the world, with Daesh expanding in Syria and Iraq, a civil war that has ravaged Syria for more than four years now, and a relatively new one in Yemen, the Middle East is passing through some of its most turbulent times.

The death of former Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal on Thursday at the age of 75 in Los Angeles has hit all of us hard both because we will sorely miss the superb diplomat that he was, always pushing discreetly for Saudi Arabia’s strategic interests, but also because it marks the end of an era and the continuation of uncertain times that all Arab states face following the upheavals of the Arab Spring revolutions.

“After almost 40 years in service, Prince Saud Al-Faisal will be remembered as the key architect of Saudi diplomacy whose relentless efforts have ensured the protection of Saudi interests,” said Christian Koch, director of the Gulf Research Center to Al-Jazeera.

As foreign minister, Prince Saud was involved in helping resolve many regional conflicts in the Middle East, from the civil war in Lebanon to the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 when he flew to the United Nations in New York and phoned Saddam Hussein, convincing him to call an end to the eight-year war that killed hundreds of thousands on both sides. But he also faced many failures which were very frustrating, none more so that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He admitted publicly that this was his greatest disappointment. “All the neighborhood, if you will, will be at peace with Israel, will recognize their right to exist. If this doesn’t provide security of Israel, I assure you the muzzle of a gun is not going to provide that security,” Prince Saud said in 2002.

Prince Saud’s other big worry was the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington by Al-Qaeda terrorists, 15 of whom were Saudis. He warned that it would produce many more problems than it would solve, and he was sadly right. Saddam Hussein, a bloody tyrant that had kept his country together for two decades, was overthrown and later executed, and the Shiites, once subjugated, were now in power. But they sought revenge against the Sunnis, and the neighboring Iranians poured in to help their Shiite brothers. With this messy situation, we saw the rise of militias and the ripping apart of Iraq, something the Americans were never able to handle. From all of this chaos has risen the terrorist group Daesh that so torments us in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and here at home in the Kingdom with their bloody attacks that kill innocent Muslims.

“If change of regime comes with the destruction of Iraq, then you are solving one problem and creating five more problems,” Prince Saud told a British television program. How right he was.

But Prince Saud should also be remembered for creating a modern Saudi diplomatic service that is something to be proud of today. We have come a long way from our first diplomatic representative at the United Nations. Today we have career diplomats, both men and women, who rise through the ranks by working at our diplomatic missions around the world helping Saudi citizens abroad and promoting and defending the interests of our nation.

One of the ways that the Kingdom has been able to do so has been through helping local Muslim communities around the world. Saudi embassies have been helping build mosques and bring in imams to run the mosques since the 1970s, working with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Muslim World League. Here in Brazil, the Saudi Embassy has been responsible for helping build many mosques in several Brazilian cities, and for hiring imams. Prince Saud supported all of these efforts, which are a lynchpin of the Kingdom’s responsibilities as the home of Islam’s two holiest cities: Makkah and Madinah.

Prince Saud dedicated his life to public service and will always be remembered for that by Saudis and other Arabs. The younger generation of Arabs would do well to try and emulate some of his determination and calmness in getting things done.

That is the least they can do to try and keep his legacy alive.

Saudi reformists sentenced to long jail terms, lawyer calls trial a travesty

Published in the Dec. 1-Dec. 7 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly:

Sentencing of 16 reformists in Riyadh to stiff jail terms raises doubts about fairness of the Saudi judicial system, reports Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

“Horrible, uncalled for and unfounded,” were the words used by Bassim Alim, the lawyer of the 16 reformists sentenced on 22 November to stiff jail sentences in Riyadh ranging from 10-30 years in prison, after being found guilty of forming a secret organization, attempting to seize power, incitement against the King, financing terrorism, and money laundering.

Dr. Saud al-Mokhtar, a medical doctor from Jeddah, received the stiffest sentence of 30 years in jail,  a 30-year travel ban and a fine of SR2 million (around $533,112), for allegedly being the head of the group.

“He was the most visible of them all in the media, but there was never a group, it was a complete fabrication,” said Alim in a phone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly from Jeddah.

Suleiman al-Rashudi, a retired judge was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, Musa al-Qurni to 20 years, Walid al-Amri to 25 years, Abdulrahman Sadiq to 20 years and Abdulaziz al-Khariji to 22 years, according to Alim.

The group came under the scrutiny of the security services after Dr. Mokhtar held a series of weekly meetings over several months at his home in Jeddah, open to the public, in which politics and current events, such as the war in Iraq, were discussed. The doctor also regularly raised charitable donations to send to orphaned children in Iraq and other Arab countries.

The first nine of the group were arrested in Jeddah in February 2007 after they met to discuss setting up a human rights organization, and had circulated a petition calling for political reform, according to the human rights group Amnesty International. All 16 were held for more than three years without being charged or tried until August 2010. Alim was not allowed to meet with any of them before the trial.

The 16 reformists were accused of planning to start a political party, something that is illegal in the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia. Alim denies this: “There was no plan to set up a political party. There were plans to petition the king to set up a human rights organization to educate the public about civic rights.”

Alim admits though that a smaller sub-group of the 16 reformists had met with the hardline Crown Prince and Interior Minister Naif ibn Abdulaziz months before the arrests began, and that he had warned them to stop their organizing.  Some observers speculate that this may be why they were treated so harshly in detention and handed such stiff sentences.

“Dr. Saud al-Mokhtar held a diwaniya in his home every week, and up to 200 people would attend in a single sitting,” explained Alim. “Dignitaries from the Islamic world would attend, as well as former ministers, philosophers, writers, journalists and government officials. His campaign to raise money for Iraqis was broadcast on Saudi TV, and the account number for donations was publicly known,” he added.

US Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in 2007 that “based on the evidence I have seen, it appears more likely that these men were actually democracy activists.”

At the time though, Nawaf Obaid, a security consultant to the Saudi government, insisted that the government had intelligence saying that the money collected by Dr. Mokhtar had been diverted from needy Iraqis in order to buy weapons for Al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq.

“You must prove that the money was diverted, and that he (Dr. Mokhtar) knew it was being diverted,” said Alim, adding that the government did not have much evidence. “At the beginning I was given access to the list of indictments. They only had (records of) meetings with different people, and they tried to extrapolate from there. They had no phone recordings, no documents, no witnesses to prove their accusations,” he explained.

Although those sentenced last week are of an Islamist persuasion, Alim insists that Dr. Mokhtar never supported Al-Qaeda or its ideology.

“Dr. Saud has nothing to do with Al-Qaeda. All of his writings were always against the Taqfeer way of Al-Qaeda, and to warn people of the danger of Al-Qaeda and their ways,” said Alim.

“It is surreal and so ridiculous. They fabricated these accusations and could not even come close to making them sound realistic,” added Alim. “There is no gun, and no smoke coming out of the gun. This was a crucifixion of the justice system. The judge came with a predetermined sentence in mind.”

The defendants have 30 days to appeal once the judge gives his written sentence, which is expected in another week. Alim says he is hopeful and will fight to the very last moment.

Asked whether he would appeal to King Abdullah for clemency, Alim said that many people had already sent appeals to the king, but that there had been no response so far.

“I feel that that King Abdullah is not responding to our appeals for clemency,” said Alim.












Royal reshuffle

The body of Crown Prince Sultan ibn Abduaziz is carried at his funeral in Riyadh on Oct. 25, 2011, by his brother Riyadh Governor Prince Salman and other princes.

The death of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz, age 86, early on the morning of 22 October in a New York hospital following a long battle with cancer, left King Abdullah in an odd position: Should he appoint his half-brother, the second deputy premier and Interior Minister Prince Naif, as the new crown prince, or call on the Allegiance Council to help him choose?

Perhaps a more important question was which senior princes would end up with which strategic portfolios after a cabinet reshuffle that is expected to happen soon.

Observers of the kingdom were divided on what process the Al-Saud royal family would use in such a novel situation in which the crown prince died before the king, something that had never happened before since the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932. But one thing they agreed upon was that Naif, who is 77, would most likely be named the new crown prince.

Sultan and Naif were full brothers, sons of the favourite wife of King Abdel-Aziz, Hessa Al-Sudeiri, and part of a faction of the royal family known as the Sudeiri Seven. Princes from this group form a powerful voting bloc in the Allegiance Council that King Abdullah could not defeat easily if there were a disagreement on who should be the next crown prince.

But most analysts do not expect any fireworks now or in the foreseeable future within the royal family, which has always used consensus and seniority to reach decisions accepted by the majority of the princes, estimated to number at least 7,000.

“The Al-Saud are a formidable consensus machine. Their strength has been their ability to create coalition governments representing different family points of view broadly reflecting the minority liberalism and majority conservatism of the Saudi population as a whole,” said Robert Lacey, the author of two books on the kingdom and an observer of the royal family for more than 30 years.

King Abdullah created the Allegiance Council in 2006 in order to codify what had been until then an unwritten tradition of succession rules. Formed by the remaining surviving sons of King Abdel-Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and his grandsons, the council has 34 members. The Allegiance Institution Law, which created the council, has 25 articles that set out in detail how a new crown prince is to be chosen, and even spells out that a Transitory Ruling Council should take control of the country in the unlikely event that both the king and crown prince are incapacitated or die at the same time. In Article 7, section B, it says that: “The king may ask the Allegiance Institution to nominate a suitable crown prince at any time. In the event that the king rejects the committee’s nominee, the Allegiance Institution will hold a vote to choose between the king’s candidate and its own. The nominee who secures the majority of the votes will be named crown prince.”

The quandary that the king finds himself in is that the Allegiance Council has never been used before in its new institutionalised form, which some analysts say puts pressure on Abdullah, who is 88, to use it now and make sure that it works smoothly.

“There are some who say that the new Allegiance Council process is only supposed to become operative after the deaths of both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan, so King Abdullah can now appoint his crown prince without calling the council,” explained Lacey. “I suspect that the king will want to use the process — which was his idea — in order to get it established. After all, it is the closest thing in Saudi Arabia to true democracy — one prince, one vote.”

There is also enormous pressure on the royal family to decide who will follow Naif once he becomes king. Most of the senior princes are well into their 70s and 80s, and no star performer has appeared yet in the second generation of princes.

“The challenge facing the king and the family is deciding who comes after Naif. There are several unknowns. Will the senior princes choose another half-brother or will they make the difficult decision of moving to the next generation? From what we know of Abdullah’s political instincts, he likely prefers the latter,” said Toby Craig Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University and an expert on Saudi Arabia. “Unless something remarkable happens, and the family passes over Naif right now, the real question is who becomes second deputy prime minister. He may not use the Allegiance Council this time, but any decision will be the result of consultation and consensus within the family. If the decision takes a while, it may signal divisions within the senior levels of the family.”

Prince Naif has been the interior minister since 1975, and has a reputation of being a tough and feared conservative, who has spoken out against women being allowed to vote, jailed reformers and led a bloody fight against Al-Qaeda terrorists this past decade. After the 9/11 attacks in the US, he initially did not believe that the majority of the hijackers were Saudis. But after Al-Qaeda began terror attacks in the kingdom in 2003, he became their implacable foe.

King Abdullah appointed Naif second deputy premier in 2009 after Crown Prince Sultan kept spending long periods of time abroad for medical treatment. Although never formally announced as such, the appointment carried the unspoken assumption that the position would eventually lead Naif to be the crown prince.

Opinion is split on whether Naif would continue being such a hardliner once king, or whether he would move slightly more to the centre and not undo the reforms that Abdullah has instituted, such as allowing women to vote in 2015 and having them appointed to the Shura Council.

“Many are understandably concerned about Naif and his support for the most conservative elements of the religious establishment. But the Al-Saud have not survived because they choose one group and consistently reward it. The conservative ulema may have the upper hand for now, but if they grow too powerful, then Naif will check their ambition just like he would any other group,” said Jones.

Lacey thinks that Naif’s conservative credentials will actually allow him to do things which other kings have not been able to.

“Prince Naif has always operated, and will continue to operate within the Al-Saud consensus of gradual modernisation in the context of conservative traditions,” said Lacey. “But I predict that just as it took a conservative, Nixon, to establish US relations with China, so it will require Naif, as figurehead of the socially and religiously conservative, to push through reforms like women driving. It is my prediction that Saudi women will drive under King Naif.”

Important decisions need to be made as to who will be the new defense minister. Sultan’s son, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, who has been the deputy defense minister for the past ten years, is one potential candidate. Another candidate is Riyadh Governor Prince Salman, who is a full brother of Naif, and the most powerful royal after the king and Naif.

Strategic portfolios within the government have traditionally been carefully divided among the various power groups within the royal family. Foreign affairs have largely been handled by the Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, while Prince Naif and his two sons, who are deputy ministers of the interior, have handled internal security and certain issues such as dealing with the Shia in Bahrain. King Abdullah and his sons have been in charge of the National Guard, a largely Bedouin force, created as a counter-balance to the regular army, a sort of loyalist force to guard the royal family against any possible insurrection.

Nevertheless, no analyst believes that there will be any major changes in how the kingdom is run, emphasising that the royal family prizes stability and continuity above all else. What the ruling family will continue to face is a religious establishment that is so conservative that it still refuses to discuss such issues as allowing women to drive and does not accept the recently inaugurated King Abdel-Aziz University for Science and Technology that has coed education.

“The religious establishment will certainly attempt to stem the flow of Westernisation and undermining of what they see as traditional Islamic values,” said Lacey. “What we call ‘reforms’ they view as ‘corruptions’ — cheeky young kids and women who want their own way — and a lot of male Saudis agree with them, along with some women too.”

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