Prince Turki al Faisal: 'We want to give British people better understanding of Saudi life'

The Monday Interview: The Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United Kingdom

Could this be the world's most ill-timed, if not ill-advised, public relations exercise? Even as Westerners in Saudi Arabia pack up and flee their compounds, terrorised by a spate of attacks including the murder of a BBC cameraman in a Riyadh street, and the beheading of an American businessman, the House of Saud wants to promote the jewels of its art, culture, dance and archaeology to the British people.

The fabulously wealthy dynasty which numbers upwards of 20,000 people and controls a quarter of the world's oil supplies, believes we do not know enough about Saudi culture, and even its potential as a tourism destination.

So it has recruited a London public relations firm, and this week at a ceremony in Kew Gardens, 10 Saudi palm trees will be given to Britain. And in a few weeks, Syon Park, the 200-acre estate of the Duke of Northumberland south-west of London, will provide the setting for a festival called Arabian Days - A Summer Celebration.

Would it have been wiser to call off the festival in light of recent events? "Absolutely not," Prince Turki al Faisal says emphatically. The eighth son of the late King Faisal was appointed ambassador to the UK 18 months ago. In the opulent surroundings of the Saudi embassy in Mayfair, he now laments the "distorted" and "ignorant" perceptions he believes we in Britain have of the kingdom.

So he wants to change these misconceptions. But with displays of falconry? With dromedary camels, Arabian horses in traditional raiment and saluki dogs? With "distinctive, original and eye-catching Saudi Arabian regional costume"? With, as the press release I have been handed announces, "a festival which will entertain all the family"?

Prince Turki says: "This is not a political event. It's a people-to-people event. We want British people to have a better knowledge of who they are dealing with. I think there is a view here, that the kingdom and its people are so alien, it's almost as if we come from another planet, with our customs and traditions and religion and our practices. So part of this exercise is to make people here aware that we are as human as they are. The [British] public is still pretty much unaware of what the true conditions are in Saudi Arabia."

Of course, we could turn to the annual report of Amnesty International for an idea of what some of the conditions are. It cites one of the worst human rights records on the planet. Arrests and detentions without charge; "endemic" discrimination against women; torture and ill-treatment. All are "rife". Flogging and amputation are routine punishments even for theft. And there are the weekly public beheadings in Riyadh's Chop-Chop square.

If that was not enough, the strictures of Saudi society - where it a crime for a woman to drive, or to appear in public without being covered from head to toe, or where religious police enforce Saudi's puritanical Wahabbist brand of Islam with ferocity; or where alcohol and all other forms of Western depravity are banned - might put off all but the most determined foreign pilgrim headed for Mecca.

Yet Saudia Arabia has just established a committee to promote tourism. It is relaxing the rules on visas, and its diplomats are talking about such activities as "off-roading" through the desert, and visiting the archaeological treasures on the spice and frankincense routes of the Arabian peninsula. Backpacking in a burqa anyone?

There is method to this looking-glass behaviour. The regime is "on life support", says Robert Baer, a former CIA officer and author of Sleeping with the Devil, a devastating account of the Saudi regime's business links with the Bush administration. The ruling family is at war with enemies within Saudi Arabia's borders.

Just weeks ago, 22 people were slaughtered in shootings in Al Khobar. The kidnap and beheading of Paul Johnson and shooting of Frank Gardner, the BBC correspondent, and the death of his cameraman have spread panic and fear. Some expats, who live behind walled compounds at the best of times, have begun disguising themselves with beards and flowing robes. Many others have quit. The Foreign Office believes further attacks on Westerners are being planned.

The attacks are not aimed primarily at massacring the seven million foreign workers, rather at driving them out, destabilising the economy and toppling the House of Saud so the state can be "purified" of the ruling family's corrupt and profligate Western ways, their Marbella palaces, cocaine parties and private jets. Rising poverty among ordinary Saudis has helped fuel militant Islam and calls for jihad on Western targets, including the Saud family.

This explains, some observers say, why Crown Prince Abdullah, the reformist acting monarch, has hit the "reform or die" button, announcing more openness and sending his most urbane spokesmen out to reassure the West that everything is holding together, and the terrorists and extremists are isolated.

Urbane certainly describes the US and Cambridge-educated Prince Turki in his crisp linen suit. The man who headed Saudi intelligence for 24 years says he believes the threat by jihadist groups is exaggerated. "The terrorist threat is receding", he says, adding, bizarrely, that more people are murdered on the streets of London every year. "When your country was going through 20 years of [IRA] terrorism people here were terrified as well. I remember seeing sandbags and concrete blocks blocking off government buildings and banks, and people were always scared of public places. That is the intent of the terrorists."

Analysts have suggested the security guards who protect the world's biggest oil-processing installations have been infiltrated by extremists. But Prince Turki says the failure so far to attack oil installations signifies the opposite, that the kingdom's security forces are winning the war on terror. "They will not get to the oil. If they could they would have done it already. We are not much concerned about the effect of these attacks on the oil industry.

"[The terrorists] want to cut off Saudi Arabia from any contact with anyone. Our struggle with these people will continue till every last one of them is caught and brought to justice."

Is the problem for the ruling family less the gunmen and suicide bombers, than the groundswell of Saudi public opinion hostile to the West? Prince Turki thinks this is another distortion. "The mass of public opinion in Saudi Arabia distinguishes - you will see it in the surveys - between America and American policy"

"But this is what the terrorists want to imply, with their activities, to get Westerners and all non-Muslims, they want to tell them you are not welcome here and this is not just us killing you but all the Saudis. Which is not the case. All of the surveys I have seen in Saudi Arabia about opinions in general to America and the West indicate that."

But what of the shadow of Osama bin Laden, who was partly a creation of Saudi intelligence during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s? Prince Turki had many personal dealings with Bin Laden, but that was a long time ago, he says, "When he was a do-gooder". The ambassador believes Bin Laden and his entourage are still in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. "He is still communicating with his supporters. He is still determined to portray himself as a deliverer of Muslims everywhere."

Robert Baer and others claim most Saudis would vote for Bin Laden if a referendum were held today. "It is not true," Prince Turki says. "Only 4.3 per cent would vote for him as president, a survey showed last week. He is not popular in the kingdom because of his violence and his nihilism and cynical attitude to people's lives. His operatives are killing as many Muslims as non-Muslims. He developed a cult. One of the aspects is total devotion. That he has managed to do. It is a small, tight group. But he has not touched the basic and generally moderate trend in the Arab world."

After the killing of Abdul Aziz Muqrin, the Saudi al-Qa'ida leader whose cell claimed they beheaded Mr Johnson, Crown Prince Abdullah offered terrorists in the kingdom an amnesty, calling on them to return to the path of righteousness. How does that square with the commitment to defeating the terrorists?

"We hope it will work on the psyche of the terrorists, make them realise what they are doing is wrong," Prince Turki says. Some say this is using the Koran against al-Qa'ida sympathisers now their leading figures in Saudi have been killed.

The royal family may desperately need to reform and open up to survive, but critics doubt anything of substance is changing. "They are in denial," says Dr Mai Yamani, the London-based Saudi academic. "If they cannot allow a woman to drive a car or leave the country without the permission of a man, what reform is there?"

Rania al Baz the beautiful Saudi TV presenter, went public with her scars after her husband beat her because she answered the telephone. How does Prince Turki think British people can understand a society that treats its women like this?

"Ah," he smiles. "Well, wife-beating is one thing we do have in common." Anyway he adds, this case - the husband was convicted and lashed - illustrates perfectly how Saudi Arabia has changed. "It was given maximum exposure. She did not try to hide it. It was put on TV. Society has evolved and gone beyond what it used to be."

THE CV Prince Turki al Faisal ibn Abdulaziz

Born: 1946. Eighth and youngest son of Prince [later King] Faisal

Education: Primary school: Al Namouthja, Al-Taif; Lawrenceville School, New Jersey; business degree at Georgetown University, Washington DC; studied law Cambridge and London

Family: Married to Princess Nof bint Fahad; three sons, three daughters