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The Muslim World

Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Key Architect of Saudi Diplomacy

Prince Saud bin Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, commonly known as Saud Al-Faisal, who passed away on 9th July 2015, was the key architect of Saudi diplomacy for the past 40 years. Having been the foreign minister of the kingdom since 1975 till 29th April 2015, he played an important role in shaping his country’s response to the many epochal events that took place in the Middle East region, as well as those in the world at large. He also had the unique distinction of having been the world’s longest serving foreign minister when he was replaced on 29th April 2015 due to ill health.

His long career was marked by events such as Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1978, 1982 and 2006, the Palestinian intifadas of 1987 and 2000, Iran-Iraq war in 1980, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Nine, Eleven incident in US and the US-led coalitions occupation of Iraq in 2003.

As a contemporary journal remarked, “the tall, stately prince was a fixture of Middle Eastern diplomacy, representing the oil-rich Gulf power as it wielded its influence in crisis after crisis shaking the region.”
He served under four Saudi kings, advancing the kingdom’s foreign policy especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States.

Commenting on Prince Saud Al-Faisal’s role, Khalil Jahshan Executive Director of the Arab Centre in Washington said, “it is difficult even to think of Middle East foreign policy without referencing Saud Al-Faisal.
Christian Koch, director of the Gulf Research Center Foundation told Al-Jazeera; “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 Saudi interests”. A UK daily observed: “The prince, fluent in English and French, brought an air of sophistication and charisma, whether in crisp suits or in traditional Saudi robes. He spent 40 years guiding Saudi Arabia through crises and tensions throughout the Middle East.”

Those crises ranged from Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, multiple rounds of Arab-Israeli peace efforts, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of neighbouring Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War, the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaida in the US and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as the current tensions between the Arab Gulf bloc and Iran, the Arab Spring uprisings, Syria’s civil war and the spread of Islamic State.

When the prince stepped down on 29th April, the US Secretary of State John Kerry said he “has not just been the planet’s longest-serving Foreign Minister but also among the wisest.” He said the prince was “a man of vast experience, personal warmth, great dignity, and keen insights who served his country loyally and well. I personally admired him greatly, valued his friendship, and appreciated his wise counsel. His legacy as a statesman and diplomat will not be forgotten.” Mamoun Fandy, author of Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, said the Prince’s death marks the end of an era as the elder royals move to shift power to younger princes. “The history of Saudi foreign policy is Al-Faisal, both him and his father,” he said. “It’s how the world knew Saudi Arabia, through al-Faisal.”

The Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi in his condolence message on the prince’s death said the world has lost a “noble” diplomat who defended his nation with “courage and valour.” At home he championed social reform, observing for instance, “Nowhere in the Koran is it written that women are not allowed to drive car,” adding, “They are more sensible voters than men”.

Ties with US
He led Saudi diplomacy over a period that saw the kingdom, once better known for its behind-the-scenes influence, become more overt in affairs across the Middle East. Tending to the alliance with the US was a major part of that, and Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait brought US troops to Saudi Arabia, a deployment that raised some domestic opposition among Saudis.

Al-Faisal played a key role in patching ties with the US which were strained by the 9/11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. He insisted in public speeches that Islam and Muslims are not the enemy, declaring in 2004 in an address at the European Policy Centre in Brussels; “You just cannot dismiss a 1,400-year-old culture and civilisation by stigmatizing it as merely a hatchery for terrorism.”
After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq removed Saddam, Saudi Arabia often bristled over the consequences – the rise of Shiite power in Baghdad and the growing influence there of Shiite-led Iran, the kingdom’s principal rival. Saud “had to explain to the world how they hated Saddam Hussein, but objected to handing over Iraq to Iran,” said Fandy.

Policy toward Iran
Al-Faisal was not seen as a hawk toward Iran, but was part of the leadership that saw the Shiite power across the Gulf waters as the main challenge to Sunni-led Saudi Arabia.
Last year, he invited the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to visit Saudi Arabia. Zarif ended up visiting shortly after King Abdullah’s death in late January and expressed hopes of greater co-operation.

In March Saud helped rally efforts for Saudi Arabia to lead an Arab coalition to bomb Yemen’s Shiite rebels who had taken over the capital there. “We are not warmongers, but if the drums of war call for it, we are prepared,” he said, arguing the Yemen was integral to Gulf security and that Iran was behind the rebels.
The Prince had suffered much ill-health in recent years, including Parkinson’s Disease, and had several spinal operations in the US.
He once approached King Abdullah to ask to retire as foreign minister, saying he was tired and needed to rest. The monarch refused, telling him, “So I should be the only one to die in office?”

Early life and career
Prince Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, was born in Ta’if, 2nd January 1940. He was the son of Saudi Arabia’s third king, Faisal, who ruled from 1964 until he was assassinated in 1975. Saud, who graduated in economics from Princeton and had been deputy oil minister, was appointed foreign minister soon after, a post his father had held during his reign.

His knowledge of Western politics and his solid command of the English language made him the natural choice of representing Saudi Arabia on the international stage. In 1975 he became the country’s minister of foreign affairs, a position he would go on to occupy until April this year.
Fahad Nazer, former political analyst at Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington said: “ I think it is fair to say that Prince Saud al-Faisal was considered by many to be the consummate diplomat.”

“His eloquence and reassuring demeanor was admired by Saudis as well as many of his counterparts in the international diplomatic community,” he added.

A royal decree issued in April by King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud forced Prince Saud, and other ageing royal members, to retire in favour of much younger royals. Al-Jubeir, the former Saudi ambassador in Washington replaced him, becoming only the second civilian to ever take on the role of foreign minister.

“Al-Jubeir’s appointment is reflective of the intention of Saudi Arabia to maintain close security ties with the United States. Al-Jubeir was a top advisor to former King Abdullah and he was also involved in many multilateral meetings and initiatives across a broad spectrum of international relations,” said a commentator.

His biggest disappointment
Prince Saud al-Faisal reviewing his long tenure as foreign ministry said his biggest disappointment as foreign minister had been the failure to bring about a Palestinian state during his career.

“We have not yet seen moments of joy in all that time,” the prince said in a 2009 interview with the New York Times. “We have seen only moments of crisis; we have seen only moments of conflict, and how can you have any pleasure in anything that happens when you have people like the Palestinians living as they are?”

Mixed legacy
“Prince Saud al-Faisal’s legacy is mixed. Even the Prince himself said that he will not be remembered for many successes. But Prince Saud’s direction of the foreign ministry leaves a lasting impression of his four decades of international experience. He is a part of Saudi history during wars with Israel, trying to help the Palestinian cause, and outlasting the Soviet empire,” a commentator told Al Jazeera. Nazar, the former Saudi diplomat, told Al Jazeera the news of Prince Saud’s passing would undoubtedly make a large impact in Saudi Arabia and in the West. “The news of his resignation alone marked an end of an era in Saudi politics and was met with sadness by many Saudis. I have no doubt that there will be a tremendous outpouring of emotion by Saudis of all stripes following his passing and were are already seeing it on social media,” Nazar said.

Visit to Iran
In May 1985, The Prince officially visited Iran and meetings were focused on the annual pilgrimage of Iranians to Makkah. The same year Prince Saud raised awareness in Britain of Soviet activity in the Horn of Africa. He asked Condoleezza Rice to focus on “key substantive issues” of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He complained that US banks were auditing Saudi Embassy banks illegally. He asserted that auditors were “inappropriate and aggressive”. He also declared that the Saudi Embassy has diplomatic immunity.

Relations with US
Prince Saud said in 2004 that Saudi Arabia would like to reduce its dependence on US dominated security arrangements. In July 2004, he claimed the real source of problems in the Middle East were not Muslims but “injustice and deprivation inflicted in the region”. In August 2007, he denied allegations that terrorists were travelling from Saudi Arabia to Iraq and claimed it was vice versa.On 10th March 2006, he met with Hamas leaders in Riyadh. In July 2006, he urged US President George W. Bush to call for a ceasefire in the Lebanon bombing.

Policy about Pakistan
In January 2008, Prince Saud supported parliamentary elections in Pakistan. He indicated that Pakistan did not need “overt, external interference” to solve political division. He commended Nawaz Sharif as stable bipartisan candidate. In February 2010, he told General Jones to distinguish between friends and enemies in Pakistan rather than using indiscriminate military action. He insisted that Pakistan’s army must maintain its credibility. In November 2010, he led the Saudi delegation at the G-20 Summit. In January 2011, he withdrew out of mediation efforts to reinstate a government in Lebanon. In March 2011, he went to Europe to rally support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain.

Syrian crisis
After US Gulf Cooperation Council forum at the GCC secretariat in Riyadh on 31st March 2012, he said it was a “duty” to arm the Syrian opposition and help them defend themselves against the daily bloody crackdown by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Commenting on the fragile security situation, Prince Saud noted that: “One of the most important causes is the continuation of the unresolved conflict as well as the continuation of the Israeli aggression policy against the Palestinians. “We have discussed, in the meeting, many issues, especially the heinous massacre against the Syrian people. We also discussed the latest developments in Yemen, and reviewed the overall developments and political situation in the Gulf region, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as their repercussions on the security and stability of the region and the world,” Prince Saud said.

Rather than military action on Iran, Saud Al Faisal called for tougher sanctions such as travel bans and further bank lending restrictions. He stated US foreign policy has tilted more power for Iran. He compared the Iranian influence in Iraq with Iranian influence in Lebanon. He commended positive developments by Iran such as its influence over Hezbollah to end protests. In early 2011, he expressed fear of the “dangerous” instability in Lebanon after the fall of the Saad Hariri government. He also stated that Lebanon’s ability to establish peaceful coexistence with so many different groups may be a significant loss in the Arab world if the nation failed in creating a government.

Other government activities
Starting in 1998 under the reign of King Fahd, Saud Al Faisal and then the Crown Prince Abdullah managed the energy sector through a committee of technocrats and princes. More specifically, Prince Saud was appointed chairman of the Saudi Aramco’s committee charged with the project assessment in September 1999.

On 20th November 2009, King Abdullah appointed Prince Saud as the Chairman of the influential Supreme Economic Council of Saudi Arabia. Prince Saud was also a member of the military service council.

His Influence on Saudi policies
Saudi foreign policy is designed by the King, not by the foreign minister. Prince Saud worked closely with King Khalid, King Fahd and King Abdullah.

Prince Saud was firmly anti-Soviet and was an Arab nationalist. He was more resistant to Israeli proposals than King Fahd. He lamented his legacy might be defined “by profound disappointment than by success”.
He regretted how his generation of leaders had failed to create a Palestinian state. He encouraged Iraqis to defend their country’s sovereignty.

King Abdullah’s closet ally
In the Saudi royal court, his relationship with King Fahd was strained, but he was one of King Abdullah’s closest allies. He was among the Saudi officials who worked to improve Saudi Arabia’s international image and maintain its strong relationship with the United States after the September 11 attacks.

Personal life
Prince Saud was married to his cousin Jawhara bint Abdullah bin Abdul-Rahman, and together they have three sons and three daughters. His daughter Haifa bint Saud is married to Prince Sultan bin Salman, the first of Royal Blood and the first Arab astronaut. Prince Saud lived in Jeddah. Unlike other members of the Al Saud, he often spoke publicly and interacted with reporters. Prince Saud spoke excellent English. He liked to play tennis.

Social role
Prince Saud was closely involved in philanthropy. He was a founding member of the King Faisal Foundation and chairman of the board of directors for the King Faisal School and Al Faisal University in Riyadh. He was also a member of the Society for Disabled Children and the Madinah Society for Welfare and Social Services.

Illness and death
Prince Saud suffered from Parkinson’s disease and back pain. He had surgery in the United States. His physical appearance showed signs of deterioration, especially difficulty in standing upright. On 11th August 2012, he had another surgery to remove a “simple” blockage in the intestines due to adhesions resulting from previous surgery. The operation was performed at the Specialist Hospital in Jeddah. Prince Saud went to Los Angeles after he left the hospital on 6th September 2012. The ministry announced that he would stay there for a while. On 25th January 2015, Prince Saud had a successful spine surgery in the US. In March 2015 he was photographed using a walker. Prince Saud al-Faisal died on 9th July 2015 at the age of 75 in Los Angeles.
His funeral prayer was held in The Grand Mosque in Makkah and was mourned throughout the world.