Frankly Speaking | S4 E1 | Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Former chief of General Intelligence Directorate
Hello and welcome to Frankly Speaking where we dive deep into the biggest news making headlines across the region and around the world speaking with leading policymakers and business leaders. I am Katie Jensen. On today’s show we speak with His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to both London and Washington. We tackle US-Saudi relations, his view on the war between Russia and Ukraine, as well as ever-shifting dynamics of Middle Eastern geopolitics as both oil prices and diplomatic tensions rise. Your Royal Highness, thank you for joining us on the show today. Now you recently wrote an article for Arab News arguing that the US should be laughing with Saudi Arabia instead of scowling at them. Frankly speaking, who is to blame and can you
explain some of the reasons behind what many are calling an all-time low in US-Saudi relations. That’s a tall question but first of all let me say, “In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful, upon whom we call for help.” As far as my writing about laughing together instead of scowling at each other, that was the result of what I thought was unfair and perhaps thin-skinned reaction to a comedy sketch on a Saudi television station that lampooned President Biden and his vice president and it is something that I thought the American media particularly would not be much affected by since they themselves have made lampooning others, especially Saudi Arabia and its leadership and its society very frequently, so that is why I wrote that piece. As far as the relationship between the two countries, we’ve always considered our relationship with the US as being strategic we’ve had our ups and downs over the years and perhaps at this time it’s one of the downs, particularly since the president of the US in his election campaign said that he will make Saudi Arabia a pariah, and of course he went on to practice what he preached by first of all stopping the joint operations that America had with the Kingdom in meeting the challenge of the Houthi-led rebellion in Yemen against the Yemeni people and also by not meeting with the crown prince and publicly declaring that he would not meet with the crown prince and at one stage withdrawing anti-aircraft missiles from the Kingdom when we were facing an increase in the attacks on us by the Houthis using Iranian equipment like missiles and drones and other such actions which were basically coming from the US. As far as the Kingdom is concerned
the crown prince a few months ago I think in an interview said that our relationship with the US is 90 percent we’re together and 10 percent we can talk to each other about. So basically this is how this is the present situation has come to this stage and I hope that we’ll get over it like we got over so many previous downturns in the relationship. Well it doesn’t feel like a 90 10 split at the moment. As I mentioned people are calling at an all-time low in relations. You mentioned a few things there. Of course Biden infamously
delisting the Houthis as a terrorist organization. You also mention the missile batteries being removed, as well. What is the sentiment like in Saudi at the moment. Do many people feel that they’ve even been betrayed by what has formerly been one of Saudi’s closest allies. The people I speak to, and I can’t speak for all Saudis of course, do not necessarily feel betrayed — as I told you Saudis consider the relationship as being strategic — but as being let down at a time when we thought that America and Saudi Arabia should be together and facing what we would consider to be a joint not just irritant but danger to the stability and security of the area which is the Iranian influence in Yemen and their direction of the Houthis as a tool not only to, if you like, destabilize Saudi Arabia but also affect the security and stability of the international sea lanes along the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.
On those matters, of course, the fact that as you mentioned President Biden delisted the Houthis from the terrorist list has emboldened the Houthis actually and made them even more aggressive in their attacks on Saudi Arabia and they included also attacks on the UAE. At the time of course Saudi Arabia and the coalition that is hoping to restore the legitimacy of the Yemeni republic and the return of the government to Sanaʽa, the Kingdom for all the time that this struggle has been going on has been calling for a ceasefire and a peaceful solution to the Yemeni conflict and unfortunately the Houthis have always either not responded to that call or simply ignored it or opposed it and as we see now there is a supposed ceasefire established by the UN but the Houthis continue to infringe on that ceasefire and to take advantage of the ceasefire to reposition their forces and replenish them. You’re saying primarily the relationship between the US and Saudis of strategic importance. Now
we’ve seen Washington reiterate their commitment to Saudi security. We’ve seen they seem to be quite eager to exchange calls between both sides and to be able to send officials to the Kingdom but we really have seen Riyadh not budge when it comes to increasing oil production as the White House would have hoped so what do you feel in your opinion what more does the US need to do. It’s not just one thing. I think it’s the general tone of the atmosphere and you’re right, America, for example, has been declaring or American officials have been declaring that they are in support of Saudi Arabia and will help Saudi Arabia defend itself against outside aggression and so on and we are grateful for those statements. But also we need to see more on the
field of the relationship between the leadership there and the leadership here. And when you say that Saudi Arabia has not budged on the issue of the oil problems that America is facing, basically America itself is the reason for the state that they’re in because of their energy policy. You know President Biden made it a policy of the US government to cut all links to what are called the oil and gas industry and he curtailed the oil production and gas production in the US and, as we know, the US has been in the last few years the biggest producer of these two energy sources. And yet by curtailing them, that has helped bring up the prices of oil and OPEC+ that was established after the COVID-19 difficulty if you remember at the beginning of COVID-19 when Russia decided to not to abide by oil productions and then there was an agreement to bring down production in order to stabilize the prices that is an agreement that is for the benefit of everybody and for the benefit of the stability of oil prices.
We don’t want to be an instrument or a reason for instability in the oil prices as we saw in the past. So that is why the Kingdom and the other OPEC members and the OPEC+ members are sticking to the production quotas that they have assigned themselves and I just read today for example that the recent decision by OPEC+ to increase incrementally oil production while the agreement is on so that is in response to the present difficulties that people have in the energy sector. Another factor of course that adds to all this is the security issue, the high rates of insurance that have come about as a result of the war in Ukraine, plus the European and American curtailment and sanction of the Russian oil industry. All of these things have added to the increase in oil prices. It’s not just Saudi Arabia’s decision that has not responded to the American request. These all together make for the difficulty that is facing, if you like, the consumer in America.
Okay, well let’s talk about some of the comments from the former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Now she told media that America should pursue a carrot and stick policy with Saudi Arabia. Now, how do statements like that resonate with people in the Kingdom? As I told you, I cannot speak for all Saudi Arabians, but I mentioned in the article, that you referred to that I wrote, that we’re not school children to be treated with a carrot and stick. We are a sovereign country and when we are dealt with fairly and squarely we respond in like and so it is unfortunate that such statements are made by politicians wherever they may be and all I can say is that I hope that the relationship of the Kingdom and the US will not hinge around or be built upon that principle. Well, when it comes to the conflict, I saw that in a recent Arab News article you said that the Ukrainian-Russian conflict has exposed international hypocrisy. Why do you believe that this is the case?
Well, that is I think attested to by the way that, for example, refugees from Ukraine, the way that they have been described in civilizational terms as being one with the West and one with Europe and so on as if other refugees from the Middle East or from other parts of the world are not equally human as Ukrainians. That’s one discrepancy in the way that Western media particularly has depicted the issue of the refugees. Another one of course — part of the hypocrisy — is the UN and the way that sanctions have been placed on Russia for invading Ukraine but no sanctions for example have been placed on Israel when it invaded Arab countries a few years back and those are the double standards and the injustices I think that have been taking place over the years. Well, the Saudi position in regards to the Ukrainian-Russian war is cryptic to many people around the world. We mentioned oil production recently and the fact that Riyadh has so far refused to increase production. Now obviously higher oil prices in the Kingdom can certainly boost their economy, but there are observers out there who were saying that it shows Riyadh is choosing to side with Moscow. Now do you think
the Kingdom has chosen a side in this conflict? What do you think their position is on this war? The Kingdom has publicly declared and voted in the UN general assembly to condemn the aggression against Ukraine that was passed by the UN general assembly. But also, if you remember, and I’ll remind you and others who are maybe listening or watching this, that the Kingdom offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine and as a mediator, it will have to maintain a link — if you like — and the ability to talk to both sides, so that is where the Kingdom is coming from and how it is dealing with the Ukraine issue. We’ve had good relations with both countries over the years, and of course in general, as I mentioned, the Kingdom is against the aggression in Ukraine. But also, most recently,
of course, the Kingdom has contributed to the fund that was established by the UN to provide support for the Ukrainian refugees in Europe. So that is where the Kingdom stands. Tell me about these Saudi attempts to mediate between Ukraine and Russia. How much sway do you think the Kingdom would have in something like this? I am not in a position, and in government, to be able to weigh how much weight we have. But it is the offer of a friend to friends — both Ukraine and Russia — (with) both of whom we’ve had excellent relations in the recent past. It is not for me to say whether there is weight or leverage that the Kingdom has in that. But the offer is there. Going back to that Arab News article we were discussing. You called out the international
hypocrisy of countries’ treatment of Israel. You said not only did it invade three Arab countries back in 1967 but claimed parts of those territories as its own. Frankly speaking, do you think the international community should be imposing sanctions on Israel in the same way that they have (imposed sanctions) on Russia? Absolutely. And I don’t see what the difference is there between the two. Aggression is aggression, whether it is committed by Russia or by Israel, and yet there has been no such effort to sanction Israel. Several Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, and, more recently, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — they have normalized ties with Israel despite some of the violations you’ve been talking about. Could perhaps embracing Israel be a more productive policy?
I have seen no evidence of that. Egypt has been at peace, if you like, with Israel since 1979; Jordan since a couple of years after that. More recently, our brothers in Abu Dhabi and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have also signed peace agreements with Israel. And yet the situation in
the West Bank and Gaza is still the same. The Palestinian people are still occupied, they are still being imprisoned will-nilly by the Israeli government. Attacks and assassinations of Palestinian individuals take place almost on a daily basis. The stealing of Palestinian land by
Israel continues despite the assurances that Israel gave to the signatories of the peace (accord) between the UAE and Israel. So, there is no sign whatsoever that appeasing Israel is going to change their attitude. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already said they will not normalize ties with Israel without an agreement that would have a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem and a fair solution for Palestinian refugees. Now, frankly speaking, many say this is highly unlikely. Does that mean that Saudi Arabia will never normalize ties with Israel? Well, I will go by the statement of the (Saudi) foreign ministry. You know, international affairs and positions of countries change over time and, hopefully, for the better.
For example, on the issue of the treatment by Israel of Palestinians, I think there is much more awareness today in the world that the occupation has been not only vicious and unacceptable, but that something should be done about it. A few years back, if I remember correctly, a few parliaments in European countries declared that their governments should recognize Palestine as a state. So, there is progress there, and I hope that there will be more progress. So, things are not going to remain status (quo). Look what happened to South Africa, when it was an apartheid state and how the world community, when it finally turned on them, it removed the apartheid status from its policy. Hopefully, the same thing will happen in Israel. Another country that has been in the headlines in recent months is Afghanistan. Last year you published the Afghanistan File, which is essentially your memoir as intelligence chief of a unique era in that country during the Soviet invasion in the 1970s.
It is surreal in many ways but the Taliban returned to power around the same time that you published your book. So, frankly speaking, what were the first thoughts that crossed your mind when you witnessed their return? I was as surprised perhaps as others were that America would just pack up and leave in the way that it did, without leaving (behind) some kind of stable continuity to whatever was happening in Afghanistan, and the support for the then government of Afghanistan. After all, they were there for 20 years. I would have thought they would have prepared themselves much better.
But, in my book, I also reached a conclusion, I think, and I refer to it now, which is that, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, they wanted to turn Afghanistan into a communist country. And they failed, because the people simply did not accept that. And when, after the Sept. 11 affair and the Taliban’s refusal to hand over (Osama) bin Laden to the Americans, because of that America then invaded Afghanistan, America and the West in general wanted to turn Afghanistan into a Western country. And that has failed. So, my position is and my belief is that when attempts are made from
outside countries and outside of people’s own interests and or their background and their culture, inevitably those attempts will fail and the two examples are there for us. But I think you make a fascinating point there, I know in a recent interview with Saudi television, you told the host Sami Al-Jaber in a clip that’s been widely circulated on social media that one of the biggest lessons learned from both the Soviet invasion and the American invasion of Afghanistan is that no country can conquer another and impose its values and way of life on other people forcibly. So tell us about that and now that the Taliban are back, will they last and for how long? I don’t know how long they will last but I’ve written before and I’ve said publicly I think that we should not ignore the Afghan people. They are the ones who have been paying the price of all that’s been happening in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion and so providing humanitarian aid to the Afghan people is a prerequisite, it’s not a choice and that is why the Kingdom led the Islamic Cooperation Conference to establish a fund to help the Afghan people. As far as the Taliban are concerned, they publicly said that for example that they will not support any groups that may want to harm other countries, that they will guard the human rights of all of the citizens of Afghanistan equally, whether it is in terms of education, in terms of women’s rights and so on and so on. So I’ve said publicly that they should be kept under a careful and watchful eye as to whether they implement what they promised and upon their response to what they said they will do and their implementation of what they will do, then countries should decide whether to deal with them or not.
For the moment, perhaps it’s a bit early to tell but there are no still positive signs that the Taliban are fully committed to what they said they will do. Well on a more optimistic note, among the many Islamic world leaders who visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during the holy month of Ramadan was Turkish President Erdogan. Of course Ankara and Riyadh have certainly had several disputes and disagreements over the years but are we seeing a new chapter unfold in bilateral relations? I hope so. I think the leadership in in Turkey has come to realize that their previous animus if you like towards the Kingdom and so on was not serving anybody’s well-being and purpose, especially the Turkish people. As you know historic links bring us together with Turkey not just in terms of geography but also in terms of human relations, family ties between the two countries. My own grandmother was of Turkish extraction, Circassian actually, and so on. And in terms of economic well-being,
the relationship between the two countries should be one of the best in terms of benefit for both countries whether it is in terms of trade, in terms of construction, in terms of development projects, in terms of investments by Saudi Arabia and Turkey and so on, so all of that I hope will be restored now that the relationship is hopefully back to normal. Oh certainly, we have seen a major new direction particularly after the visit of Erdogan. And finally, also on a more positive note, there seems to be some optimism recently with regards to Yemen. We’ve seen the Riyadh agreement and the Ramadan ceasefire take place. Do you think there is enough momentum there for a lasting and conclusive peace deal and what should the Saudi role be if and when the war ends considering that Yemen is your southern neighbor? Well we live in hope. I’ve always maintained that ceasefire agreements as they have been attempted by the UN, particularly on Yemen, have lacked one crucial aspect which has not led to their success and that is a mechanism to enforce the ceasefires. Now we’ve seen after the Kuwait meeting back in 2015 I think or 2016 there was a ceasefire but it led nowhere. And then there was
the Swedish sponsored ceasefire attempt back in 2018 I think or 19 and equally without much success there. Saudi Arabia’s own efforts at unilateral ceasefires which were declared during the recent years have led nowhere because there is no mechanism to implement the ceasefire. Hopefully that with the new impetus if you like or drive by the UN and by the world community to bring the fighting to an end, that some sort of instrument can be implemented whereby if anything at least, the person or the group that does not abide by the ceasefire is publicly shamed by the world community. That has not happened yet. I have not seen yet the UN saying that the Houthis are not abiding by the ceasefire so I hope that they will have the courage and the moral courage to stand up and say who is at fault here. Certainly some major difficulties still to be overcome but it really has been the largest political shift that we’ve seen on the war in Yemen in a very long time. Yes, indeed. Your royal highness Prince Turki Al-Faisal thank you so much for your insights today we appreciate your time, thank you very much. Thank you, thank you very much.