Prince Saud al-Faisal obituary
Prince Saud al-Faisal obituary
Long-serving minister dedicated to promoting Saudi Arabia’s foreign interests in an increasingly complex world
In the course of four decades under four kings of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has died aged 75, became the world’s longest-serving foreign minister. Until his retirement in April this year, he was the soft diplomatic face of the monarchy rather than the power behind it. He distinguished himself from the other princes by both his education and his standing as someone who had never had to deal with complex and messy domestic challenges, but concentrated his energies on even more challenging foreign relations, albeit without great success. Towards the end of his career, when King Salman replaced him with Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia appeared to have abandoned its careful diplomacy in favour of a more hawkish military interventionist foreign policy in the Arab world.
Prince Saud al-Faisal, was the soft diplomatic face of the monarchy rather than the power behind it.
The son of Prince Faisal, then foreign minister and later king, and his wife, Iffat al-Thunayan, Saud was born in Ta’if, near Mecca. In addition to his traditional education, he went to the Hun school of Princeton, New Jersey, took an economics degree at Princeton University, and was fluent in French as well as English. He worked in the government oil organisation, and in 1971 was appointed deputy minister. After his father was assassinated in March 1975, the new king, Khalid, appointed him foreign minister.
His early years in the post were largely uneventful. Saudi Arabia was quickly rehabilitated by the US after a short-lived fallout over the 1973 oil embargo, which attracted media hype and bad publicity mostly directed against the oil minister, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, rather than the foreign minister. Saudi foreign policy was in harmony with US designs for the Middle East and beyond.
Under Al-Faisal’s stewardship, the kingdom was heavily dependent on US protection but had little chance to exert pressure on the US to resolve several outstanding issues, the most persistent being the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Al-Faisal insisted on the urgency of resolving this conflict under terms that would restore Palestinian land and rights, as outlined in 1981 by Crown Prince Fahd before he became king the following year. However, this conflict later became secondary to other Saudi concerns.
During his career, strong kings often overshadowed Al-Faisal. In the 1980s King Fahd was so loyal to the US that he put his country’s enormous oil wealth behind American designs for the region. Following the king’s wishes, Al-Faisal backed the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) that devastated the two countries without resolving the emerging rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While Riyadh financed Saddam Hussein’s war, this remained a temporary alliance of necessity.
At the same time, Al-Faisal made it clear that his country stood behind US and British efforts to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The awkward behind-the-scenes logistics of this support were left to his brother Turki Al-Faisal, director of intelligence services at the time, and his flamboyant cousin Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Saud continued to strengthen relations between the US and the kingdom as the latter became host to American troops called upon to defend Saudi Arabia when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. Cooperation between the two countries continued to grow and became problematic only after 9/11.
Together with other princes, mainly his brother Turki, Saud worked hard to convince sceptical western audiences of the innocence of Saudi Arabia and absolve it from any responsibility for terror. He initially rejected the accusation that Saudi Arabia nourished jihadi ideology and exported it abroad. After 2003, when Saudi cities witnessed their worst domestic terrorist attacks, he later acknowledged that the ideology of terror may have originated in his own country.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 presented Al-Faisal with serious challenges. He was probably pleased with the prospect of removing hawkish Saddam from power, but cautioned against pursuing an overtly pro-US foreign policy that would antagonise the Arab world. In October 2002, he appeared to favour a diplomatic solution to Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. He declared that his country would allow the US use of Saudi military facilities to attack Iraq, provided there was UN approval for it, but later told CNN that it would not. He continued to urge Saddam to cooperate with the team of UN inspectors and implement UN Resolution 1441.
This was in line with the formal Arab position held during the 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut, which declared that an attack on Iraq “would be an attack on the national sovereignty of all Arab states”. Vague rhetoric and contradictory statements from the foreign minister and Crown Prince Abdullah at the time reflected the regime’s desperation to appease Washington and not to be seen to be providing a territorial base for the impending US attack.
Never the less, Saudi-US relations began to cool off immediately after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Saudi Arabia hoped to emerge as the main Arab power broker and US ally in the Middle East. But this did not happen. Al-Faisal criticised the US for allowing Iraq to become part of Iran’s sphere of influence. He reprimanded America for such an undesirable outcome. US policy on the rapprochement with Iran over its nuclear programme proved to Al-Faisal that the US intended to displace Saudi Arabia by rehabilitating its rival and archenemy. The fact that a friendly country and member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Oman, facilitated secret talks with Iran, thus bypassing Saudi Arabia altogether and marginalising it in this round of negotiations, aggravated Al-Faisal’s worries.
Despite US assurances, Al-Faisal remained convinced that Washington cared less about its most loyal ally in the Arab world and was prepared to overlook its national security. US reluctance to commit more military efforts to depose Bashar al-Assad of Syria even after he crossed red-line conditions seemed to confirm Al-Faisal’s suspicions about American president Barack Obama’s “hands-off” approach to the Arab world.
The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran continues to destabilise the Arab world. This has been most prominently manifested in the increasingly devastating sectarian terror between Sunnis and Shia in multiple countries. Al-Faisal did little to defuse this growing tension. He was unable to come to terms with a rising Iran: greater diplomatic engagement would have surely saved the Arab region a lot of bloodshed.
Instead, the rivalry with Iran intensified over time as Saudi Arabia worried about the fall of its most loyal Arab allies, figures such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, under the pressure of the Arab uprisings that started at the end of 2010. He endeavoured to return to the status quo ante, when Saudi Arabia could rely on Egypt for moral and diplomatic support. Al-Faisal favoured the return of a military regime in Egypt and backed General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
The Saudi diplomacy that Al-Faisal had cultivated over four decades gave way to direct aggression when the kingdom started a fierce military campaign, still ongoing, against the Houthi rebels, members of the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam, in Yemen in March 2015. Washington gave lukewarm approval and pledged support. In spite of this, US-Iranian rapprochement unsettled US-Saudi relations. This was viewed in Riyadh as a US policy pursued at the expense of Saudi interests.
Al-Faisal had a grandiose vision of Saudi Arabia’s role in the Arab world. This vision clashed with the new, complex realities in the region that had resulted from America’s retreat, the Syrian civil war, the rise of Islamic State, the long-term ambitions of Iran and Turkey, and the return of Russia as an important actor.
He is survived by his wife, Jawhara bint Abdullah bin Abdulrahman, three sons and three daughters.
• Saud al-Faisal (Prince Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud), politician and diplomat, born 2 January 1940; died 9 July 2015