The Monday Interview: Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

'It is galling to hear them say we're funding terror. Tell us who and how'
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The Independent Online

There was undisguised delight on Friday when five Britons and a British-born Canadian were suddenly released from prison in Saudi Arabia and flown home. Two had faced beheading; the others long sentences, for their alleged involvement in bombings.

British officials claimed the releases were a result of their discreet diplomacy. Relatives, lawyers and MPs who had supported the men insisted nothing would have been achieved without the public pressure they had exerted. The official Saudi view was that the country's judicial system had taken its rightful course, culminating in the granting of royal pardons by King Fahd. In fact, this was a classic diplomatic denouement in which there was credit aplenty to go around.

And among the key playerswas undoubtedly the ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the Court of St James's, HRH Prince Turki al-Faisal ibn Abdulaziz. The Prince's arrival in London early this year heralded the first flickers of optimism in those campaigning for the British prisoners. Five weeks ago, Prince Turki received relatives of the prisoners at the Saudi embassy in London, a meeting that sent a hopeful signal simply because it happened. Legal representatives for the men were told their petitions for clemency appeared to have been "positively received".

When the royal pardon was finalised on Friday, the men's defence lawyer attributed it to the "good consideration" of the Saudi government and efforts by the Saudi Foreign Minister and the British ambassador to Riyadh. The Foreign Minister, Prince Saud, is Prince Turki's brother. They are sons of the former Saudi king Faisal. Prince Turki's proximity to power would have been a vital element, as may have been his previous job, as director of Saudi intelligence for 24 years.

In the cool and calm of the Saudi embassy in Mayfair last week, Prince Turki had made clear his country's image in Britain was high on his list of concerns. We were asked, without preface or warning: "Why does your paper treat all that Saudi Arabia does as either the work of the devil or the work of some nefarious forces?"

The case of the Britons, imprisoned on what were widely believed to be trumped-up bomb charges certainly contributed to Saudi Arabia's negative image here. The claims that they had been tortured to extract their "confessions" (which they retracted), the prison conditions, the secretive workings of Saudi justice, nothing about this case promoted admiration for Saudi Arabia. Add to this the closed world of the rulers and the status of women, and that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 11 September 2001 were Saudi citizens, and the image problem is no mystery. But the release, more importantly for Saudi Arabia, also removes at a stroke the biggest obstacle to improved diplomatic relations between London and Riyadh.

Prince Turki insisted the jailings had not affected relations, and business ties, especially, were flourishing. That was doubtless true. On the British side, it was hard to celebrate this success in public as long as Britons pleading innocence languished in Saudi jails.

Saudi Arabia needs as many high-profile friends as it can get. The outcome of the war in Iraq, which it did not support, could have long-term repercussions for the stability of the kingdom. But the most immediate problem for Riyadh is the dire relationship with its former chief ally, the United States.

Prince Turki spent his late teens at at exclusive "prep" schools near the University of Princeton in New Jersey, and has a business degree from Georgetown University in Washington. With slightly accented, but perfect English, he breathes quiet confidence in his authority and social position

"The United States and Saudi have their problems, on both sides," he said. "From the US side, you've seen them expressed. From our point of view, the problems are in several categories ... which have upset the normal state of affairs between the countries." The "categories" he identified are bilateral relations, the Middle East, and terrorism, which encompasses nearly all of Saudi-US interaction.

The last straw was the publication - "or lack of publication", the ambassador noted pointedly - of the US congressional report on the terrorist attacks of 11 September. The Saudis were furious that 28 pages, dealing, it was said, exclusively with Saudi Arabia, was almost the only section of the 900-page report that was censored.

"This censorship," Prince Turki said, "has allowed people to accuse us without any proof and without a chance to answer. Let us see what it is. It is particularly galling simultaneously to hear 'through leaks' that Saudi is funding, aiding and abetting terrorism; so tell us who and how". He said Saudi was "willing to co-operate to resolve the problem", suggesting talks might be in progress, but he did not sound optimistic.

One suspicion in the US, possibly shared by Saudi Arabia, is that the Saudi section of the report has been suppressed not because of what it may say about Saudi, but what it may say about ties between the Bush clan and the Saudis.

Underlying the Saudi fury is a deep sense of disillusionment with the Bush administration. They were good friends with George Bush Snr when he was President and expected relations with George W's administration to pick up where they left off in 1992.

After 11 September, Prince Turki said, the US leadership - at official level - "expressed friendship and solicitude and support and all the positive things that existed between the two countries", but "at the same time, there were unspecified leaks from unspecified sources in the administration which evinced a lack of support and general unhappiness with Saudi".

The effect, he said, was "extremely unbalancing". "Official sources were saying one thing, unofficial sources something quite different, the complete opposite." This stopped, Prince Turki said, only after the visit of Crown Prince Abdullah to the Bush ranch at Crawford, Texas, the following April.

Then there was what Saudis saw as a sharp pro-Israel tilt by the new Bush administration in 2001. "All of us were taken aback. Although few Saudis knew Mr [George W] Bush, he was familiar to Saudis from his background and entourage. But he did the opposite of what people had expected, which surprised and alarmed all of us.

"[He had] seemed to go out of his way to tip towards Israel, and especially [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, as opposed to [Palestinian President Yasser] Arafat. This shocked people. It was clear there was a new game in town." That "new game" included the war with Iraq and the apparent demotion of the Palestinian issue. "Our view, and we thought it was the US view, was always that in the Middle East problem, the Palestinian aspect was the most important. Solve that, and everything else will follow."

The Prince does offer solutions. A UN "umbrella" must be established for Iraq, he says, "then all can co-operate". But, he adds, the latest UN Security Council resolution, 1483, was not sufficient; nor, in its present form, is the interim Iraqi Governing Council.

"The UN should have the leading role," he says. "A new, legal, Iraqi government should resolve all these problems [if it is] a government all can recognise as representative of the Iraqi people. But a UN mandate is imperative."

Saudi Arabia insists the Palestinian issue must be the priority. And as long as it is central to Saudi concerns, it needs the US. Prince Turki said he hoped that with the "road-map" peace plan and with Mr Bush's commitment: "We'll see something that will lessen the anger and resentment. It is a tall order, to reach a viable Palestinian state. But if he can live up to it, this will rectify the difficulties of the past few years."


Prince Turki al-Faisal ibn Abdulaziz

1946: Eighth and youngest son of Prince (later King) Faisal;

Primary school: Al Namouthijia, Al-Taif; Lawrenceville School, New Jersey; Georgetown University, business degree;

Married to Princess Nof bint Fahad; three sons, three daughters; one grand-child;

1968: Law studies in London and Cambridge.
1969: Returned to Saudi Arabia, counsellor to Royal Diwan;
1977: Director of Intelligence Organisation (until 31 August 2001)
January 2003: appointed ambassador to Court of St James's.