Saudi Arabia still awaiting signs of ‘goodwill’ from Iran

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Article Summary
In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Prince Turki bin Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud talks about the "dramatic effect" of the September attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, and says there will be no official Saudi contacts with Israel until the Palestinian issue is resolved.

The drone and missile attacks on Aramco had a "dramatic effect" on the kingdom, says Prince Turki bin Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, who served as director general of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency and ambassador to both the United States and the United Kingdom.

The strikes on Aramco’s Abqaiq and Kurais facilities, which have been attributed to Iran, “raised the level of awareness of the potential Iranian threat,” he said in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor. “And it has also gotten the kingdom moving on improving the defensive capabilities in those areas, and anywhere else that may be liable to, or a target of, Iranian attacks.”

Prince Turki, who is chairman of the King Faisal Foundation's Center for Research and Islamic Studies, has not yet seen any signs of change in Iranian behavior signaling an interest in diplomacy, on Yemen or any other issue, despite the mediation efforts of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

“If there is going to be any regional peace, if you like, we have to see goodwill signs from Iran,” said Prince Turki. “Crown Prince Mohammed said in an interview with an American news outlet, if Iran would stop its support for the Houthis, then there may be a chance for a diplomatic settlement to the war in Yemen. But we haven't seen yet any such signs of goodwill.” 

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Prince Turki, who presently has no formal position in the Saudi government, made clear that there is no change in the kingdom’s policy toward the Palestinian issue.

“My meeting with the Israelis is to convey the message to the Israeli public that … they have to deal with the Arab Peace Initiative and not try to go around it by claiming that there are secret engagements between Saudis because of Iran and so on,” he said.

“Without a resolution to the Palestinian problem, there is not going to be any Saudi engagement with Israel.”

Prince Turki warned of more "lone wolf" terrorist attacks in the region and around the world, following the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, by US forces.

“With the removal of the caliphate,” he explained, “there is going to be even more of a breakdown of structures that used to hold these operatives together. So my view is that we're going to see more and more of the already existing lone wolf operations as we see during the last three years, particularly a growing number of those lone wolf operators, whether in Europe or in Saudi Arabia or in other parts of Africa and so on.”

Prince Turki, who was a classmate of Bill Clinton at Georgetown University before Clinton became president, lamented the current difficulties in the US-Saudi relationship. 

“Obviously, issues like Sept. 11 and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi have had a stigmatizing effect on the kingdom, and we were the first to suffer from it,” he said. “We were not the perpetrators, although Saudis committed these crimes, but the government and the leadership in the kingdom was against these matters. And the Khashoggi family themselves, the heirs to Jamal, have accepted the king's assurance that they would get to the bottom of this crime and deal with the perpetrators, who have already been arrested and are being tried in the kingdom.” 

“But the stigma is there,” he added,” and the fact that he [Khashoggi] was killed by Saudis, official Saudis in an official Saudi building, the consulate in Istanbul, does stigmatize us, and we will have to live with that.”

Saudi Arabia, he said, is “not a punching bag for politicians in the United States, and if the US wants to have a continued strategic relationship with us, we are willing to work with both sides of the aisle in the United States. We have no preference. Rather, we seek a friendship from all sides and also from the media particularly. They tend to, as I mentioned, use a blinkered view of the kingdom concentrating on Khashoggi and other issues of difference of opinion between us and the United States rather than on what brings us together and what Saudi Arabia truly is, which is a dynamic and a developing and an improving situation for human beings in the kingdom.”

Prince Turki was enthusiastic about the changes under Crown Prince Mohammed and his Vision 2030.

“I think the most remarkable achievement so far in the kingdom is to lay a plan for the future that takes into consideration our shortcomings and tries to overcome those shortcomings by concerted and transparent and accountable action,” he said, “and my favorite words that I use about Vision 2030 are these two words: ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency.’”

 “And for me, the highlight of Vision 2030 is how it is dealing with the issue of the rights of women, which had been talked about much before that, but it took the Vision and the leadership, King Salman and the crown prince, to implement what had been talked about before.”

This interview was conducted by Andrew Parasiliti. A lightly edited transcript of the full interview follows: 

Al-Monitor: Let's start with Iran. The Sept. 14 attack on the Aramco facility was described to Al-Monitor by a senior GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] official recently as, quote, "like our Pearl Harbor." Has this attack forced a rethink in the kingdom's approach to Iran with regard to its drone and missile capabilities in particular and its intent in terms of its behavior in the region?

Prince Turki: It was a dramatic effect in the sense that Iran had not actually launched attacks against the kingdom since the Iran-Iraq War. If you remember in those days, the conflict between Iran and Iraq [1980-1988], two Iranian aircraft were spotted on radar heading towards the kingdom's oil facilities in the Eastern Province [in 1984]. They were intercepted by the Saudi air force and shot down. And since that time, no direct Iranian military assault on the kingdom was either recorded or observed anywhere.

But this attack that came on the Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais is definitely Iranian origin, and because of its unexpectedness, it took everybody by surprise.

I am not in the government loop to know exactly what the details were of the defensive installations that inevitably were placed in that area since that initial, if you like, attempt by Iran during the Iran-Iraq War to attack them.

But I can tell you that it has raised the level of awareness of the potential Iranian threat. And it has also gotten the kingdom moving on improving the defensive capabilities in those areas, and anywhere else, that may be liable to, or a target of, Iranian attacks.

Al-Monitor: We've detected a possible increase in regional diplomacy, including the recent mediation effort by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said war with Iran could lead to "a total collapse of the global economy." And the crown prince seems supportive of US President Donald Trump's efforts to try to talk to Iran President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani has said if an agreement can be reached on Yemen, that would help resolve tensions in Iran-Saudi ties. How do you see regional diplomacy evolving with Iran and with regard to Yemen?

Prince Turki: If there is going to be any regional peace, if you like, we have to see goodwill signs from Iran. It is Iran who is instigating the unrest through its interventions in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon and Palestine. There are continued attempts to disrupt security in Bahrain and, of course, in Yemen, their support for the Houthis, etc. 

Also, Crown Prince Mohammed said in an interview with an American news outlet, if Iran would stop its support for the Houthis, then there may be a chance for a diplomatic settlement to the war in Yemen. But we haven't seen yet any such signs of goodwill. They talk nice words and sweet words, but they act differently. They act in a very aggressive and provocative manner, as they showed in the attack on the Aramco installations.

Al-Monitor: And what about the effort by Prime Minister Khan? Because he's very close to the kingdom. The understanding of his work is that he was supported by the crown prince in his —

Prince Turki: I don't know. I'm not privy to the goings-on of Mr. Khan's attempts.

Al-Monitor: Let me ask further about Yemen. Yemen has 28 million people. Saudi has 33 million or so. Yemen was a fragile, if not failing state before the civil war as well as a locus of terrorist groups including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as ISIS [Islamic State] and its offshoots. This is all getting dramatically worse as a result of the war. It will be a generational challenge for the region and the kingdom. How do you see Yemen, and how Saudi Arabia will need to think about Yemen, even after the conflict is resolved?

Prince Turki: Well, let me start by putting some facts on the ground. The kingdom has been the main supporter of the Yemeni people since the 1960s, basically, when after the revolution started — and there was then a civil war that reached conclusion by a peaceful settlement between the then royalists and the republicans, and the kingdom recognized the republican regime in Yemen — and without any hesitation, the kingdom presented financial, economic and diplomatic support to the successive governments in Yemen, culminating in, after 2011, when there was a popular uprising in Yemen against the then President Ali Abdullah Saleh. 

The kingdom with her GCC partners managed to put that uprising down through a road map that was called the "GCC Road Map for Peace in Yemen." That road map allowed for the establishment of a successor regime to Ali Abdullah Saleh, who then actually resigned from office. A national dialogue meeting between all parties in Yemen, including the Houthis, produced a plan to move Yemen to a federal composition. And the Houthis actually signed on to that plan.

Within a year after signing up on that plan, they [the Houthis] reneged on it and began a military campaign to take over the Yemen in general, and that's when the legitimate government asked for help from the world community. The kingdom responded with the coalition partners that are now operating with the kingdom and Yemen, but the United Nations Security Council also produced Resolution 2216, which specified a rejection of the Houthi military attempt to take over Yemen, and also called for an embargo on weapon supplies to the Houthis and support to the legitimate Yemeni government under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, which allows for the use of military force. So this is just background of what has happened in Yemen.

So we're committed to working with Yemen for future development and support. I think already during this conflict, the kingdom is the largest contributor of humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people, including those living under Houthi rule, through the United Nations Food Program and UN medical services, etc., etc.

So there is no issue for us of discontinuing or disrupting the long-held Saudi program of support for the Yemeni people — that longstanding support will continue.

Al-Monitor: You mentioned the GCC. Do you see any prospects for resolution with regard that concerns some of the states with Qatar?

Prince Turki: No, I don't because Qatar continues to disregard the main reasons why there was the boycott of them by the four countries —Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Al-Monitor: What do you see that they're doing, or not doing, at this stage?

Prince Turki: Well, they're continuing with their inflammatory and incendiary attacks, media-wise and supporting opposition groups to the four countries until now.

Al-Monitor: Help us understand the evolution in the Saudi position towards the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and where do we go from here? There's, of course, the 2002 Arab Peace Plan initiated by then Crown Prince Abdullah, but there seems to be more regular contacts between Saudis and Israelis about Iran and other issues. You yourself met with [Israeli Maj.] Gen. Yaakov Amidror, the former national security adviser, and others, and have given interviews to Israeli papers. Has this position enhanced Saudi Arabia's role as an intermediary, and has the position toward the Palestinians and Palestinian statehood remained constant in this shift in policy?

Prince Turki: There has not been a shift in Saudi policy on Palestine, as many times affirmed by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

If you remember, two years ago, there was an Arab Summit meeting held in Saudi Arabia. King Salman in his opening statement of that summit said that this is the "Jerusalem Summit." This was following President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Subsequently, in every Cabinet meeting statement that has come out from the kingdom, the kingdom has re-expressed and reinvigorated its support for the Palestinian Authority's positions vis-a-vis the peace in Palestine. Our commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative is as it was when then Crown Prince Abdullah presented it to the Beirut Summit in 2002 and got all the Arab states to agree to it.

My meeting with the Israelis is to convey the message to the Israeli public that this is the case, that they have to deal with the Arab Peace Initiative and not try to go around it by claiming that there are secret engagements between Saudis because of Iran and so on.

Without a resolution to the Palestinian problem, there is not going to be any Saudi engagement with Israel, and unfortunately, in the media, particularly in the West, the Israeli effort to claim that there are contacts between Saudis and Israelis is given credibility, whereas they don't look at the statements coming out of King Salman and the crown prince and our foreign minister over the years as being the true position of Saudi Arabia.

Al-Monitor: As former director-general of Intelligence, you've had firsthand knowledge and experience of the players and networks of al-Qaeda and these terrorist groups and how they've evolved over the years. How do you see the terrorist threat now compared to when we were dealing with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, through ISIS and now, of course, the killing recently of the former head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? And what do you expect next of the threat from these groups?

Prince Turki: The threat, I believe is going to be mainly in what they call "lone wolf operations." Al-Qaeda's structure broke down as a result of very concerted international effort, including from Saudi Arabia, to break it down. The leadership that is there now, whether it is based in Iran or in Pakistan or Afghanistan, it's sort of quite mobile in its movements. … They really don't have the same kind of structure and make[up] that they used to have prior to these efforts by the international community to break them down.

The Syrian situation obviously led to an offshoot of al-Qaeda, which became what is known as ISIS, and that also shows that in terms of structure and control over Islamist terrorism, al-Qaeda had competitors and, in some cases, those who superseded them. So you had ISIS operating in Syria, and there is al-Qaeda. In Afghanistan, now there is al-Qaeda and there is ISIS.

Now with the removal of the caliphate, as it has identified itself — quite presumptuously, if I might say — there is going to be even more of a breakdown of structures that used to hold these operatives together. So my view is that we're going to see more and more of the already existing lone wolf operations as we see during the last 3 years, particularly a growing number of those lone wolf operators, whether in Europe or in Saudi Arabia or in other parts of Africa and so on.

Al-Monitor: You've been personally and professionally invested in the US-Saudi relationship for decades as former director-general of Intelligence, as ambassador here in Washington, a student at Georgetown University … and as a private citizen and member of the Saudi royal family. How do you see the relationship now? Obviously, there's been repercussions from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. How, when you come to the United States today, do you see the relationship, given that event and also moving forward into the future?

Prince Turki: The kingdom's engagement with the United States is strategic from the Saudi side and has been so since it was established by the late King Abdul-Aziz and the late President Roosevelt when they met back in 1945, before the end of the Second World War. We've had our ups and downs. We've differed on major issues like Palestine, for example, but nonetheless, we maintained the strategic linkage. The latest manifestation of that, of course, is what happened after the Iranian attacks on the Aramco facilities when the kingdom and the United States got together and agreed that there will be a deployment of US forces in Saudi Arabia to meet the challenge of potential attacks from Iran on Saudi installations.

So from that aspect, that has been a constant, and it's been with both Democrats and Republicans. That has not changed, and I hope that it will continue in that manner.

Obviously, issues like Sept. 11 and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi have had a stigmatizing effect on the kingdom, and we were the first to suffer from it. We were not the perpetrators, although Saudis committed these crimes, but the government and the leadership in the kingdom was against these matters. And the Khashoggi family themselves, the heirs to Jamal, have accepted the king's assurance that they would get to the bottom of this crime and deal with the perpetrators, who have already been arrested and are being tried in the kingdom. And the condemnation, both official and public, by the public in Saudi Arabia was expressed in the holding of funeral services for Jamal, the late Jamal Khashoggi in the two holy mosques in Saudi Arabia, in Mecca and Medina. So that is the official position on that.

But the stigma is there, and the fact that he was killed by Saudis, official Saudis in an official Saudi building, the consulate in Istanbul, does stigmatize us, and we will have to live with that.

Unfortunately, in your media and your congressional competition to find fault with President Trump by some Democrats, they tend to see Saudi Arabia's relationship with the administration as justifying their attacks on Saudi Arabia, and that, I think, is unfair. And I said so in a public speech that I gave last week in Washington: We are not a punching bag for politicians in the United States, and if the US wants to have a continued strategic relationship with us, we are willing to work with both sides of the aisle in the United States. We have no preference. Rather, we seek a friendship from all sides and also from the media particularly. They tend to, as I mentioned, use a blinkered view of the kingdom concentrating on Khashoggi and other issues of difference of opinion between us and the United States rather than on what brings us together and what Saudi Arabia truly is, which is a dynamic and a developing and an improving situation for human beings in the kingdom.

Al-Monitor: Last question. Picking up on that point, how do you see the prospects for the crown prince's Vision 2030?

Prince Turki: I think the most remarkable achievement so far in the kingdom is to lay a plan for the future that takes into consideration our shortcomings and tries to overcome those shortcomings by concerted and transparent and accountable action, and my favorite words that I use about Vision 2030 are these two words: "accountability" and "transparency." On a quarterly basis, the government publishes online the accomplishments that were announced for the Vision when it was first introduced, and so any Saudi can check where that progression is taking place.

Also, we've already seen the accountability of various ministerial departments by changes of ministers, by bringing together departments and creating new establishments, et cetera.

And for me, the highlight of Vision 2030 is how it is dealing with the issue of the rights of women, which had been talked about much before that, but it took the Vision and the leadership, King Salman and the crown prince, to implement what had been talked about before, whether it is issues of women's rights or their engagement in life in general through commerce, through identity, establishment, ec., etc.

So this to me is the highlight of the Vision so far, and you know, we're still in that mode that was defined in the Vision of the transformation mode. Before the Vision actually starts, the transformation mode was set to be five years, and we still have one more year to go there, as 2020 is going to be the end of that five-year transformation. We want to prepare for the Vision that would start from then until 2030.

Al-Monitor: Do you think this transformation, which you are totally quite optimistic about, will continue to proceed at this pace without accompanying political reform, or is that part of the Vision too?

Prince Turki: Political reform is being done already, and you see that in the participation, as I said.

As I said, it is part of the process that started during the late King Abdullah's reign and has continued under King Salman, whether it is women joining the Shura Council, the Shura Council itself acquiring more responsibility towards legislation and so on, the dealing with the corruption, the famous Ritz incident and what followed from that, which was the reaffirmation of the structure to combat corruption, not just in government, but in other things and so on.

So these things are procedure, and they will be part and parcel of Vision 2030, I think, as it goes forward.

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Andrew Parasiliti is president and chief content officer of Al-Monitor. He previously served as director of RAND’s Center for Global Risk and Security and international marketing manager of RAND’s National Security Research Division; editor of Al-Monitor; executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US and corresponding director, IISS-Middle East; a principal at the BGR Group; foreign policy advisor to US Senator Chuck Hagel; director of the Middle East Initiative at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; and director of programs at the Middle East Institute.  He received his Ph.D. from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; an M.A. from the University of Virginia; and a B.A., cum laude, from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He is an adjunct political scientist at RAND and a member of both the Council on Foreign Relations and the Virginia Club of New York. 

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