In a speech, Prince Turki al-Faisal outlines Saudi Arabia's concerns relating to the Arab spring, its foreign policies and Iran.
It was a very discreet meeting deep in the English countryside. The main speaker was Prince Turki al-Faisal, one of Saudi Arabia's best-known and best-connected royals. The audience was composed of senior American and British military officials. The location was RAF Molesworth, one of three bases used by American forces in the U.K. since the Second World War. Now a Nato intelligence centre focused on the Mediterranean and the Middle East, the sprawling compound amid green fields was an ideal venue for the sensitive topics that Turki, former head of Saudi Arabian intelligence, wanted to raise.
After an anecdote about how Franklin D. Roosevelt was told by Winston Churchill that nothing between them or their countries should be hidden, Turki warmed to his theme: “A Saudi national security doctrine for the next decade.”
For the next half an hour, the diplomat, a former ambassador to Washington and tipped to be the next foreign minister in Riyadh, entertained his audience to a sweeping survey of his country's concerns in a region seized by momentous changes. Like Churchill, Turki said, the kingdom “had nothing to hide.”
Even if they wanted to, the leaders of the desert kingdom would have difficulty concealing their concern at the stunning developments across the Arab world. Few — excepting the vast revenues pouring in from oil selling at around $100 a barrel for much of the year — have brought much relief to Riyadh.
Chief among the challenges, from the perspective of the Saudi royal rulers, are the difficulties of preserving stability in the region when autocracies that have lasted for decades are falling one after another; of preserving security when the resultant chaos provides opportunities to all kinds of groups deemed enemies; of maintaining good relations with the west; and, perhaps most importantly of all, of ensuring that Iran, the bigger but poorer historic regional and religious rival just across the Gulf from Saudi Arabia's eastern provinces, does not emerge as the winner as the upheavals of the Arab spring continue into the summer.
“The [Saudi king], crown prince and government cannot ignore the Arab situations, we live the Arab situation and hope stability returns,” the al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted Prince Nayef, the second in line to the throne and Minister of the Interior, as saying in Riyadh last week.
Iran, a majority Shia state committed to a rigorous and highly politicised Islamist ideology, remains at the heart of such fears in Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Sunni state ruled by the al-Saud family since its foundation in 1932. Recent moves such as the Saudi-inspired invitation to Morocco and Jordan, both Sunni monarchies, to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group of Sunni autocratic states, are seen by analysts as part of Riyadh's effort to bolster defences against Tehran. So too is the deployment of Saudi troops under the umbrella of the GCC to Bahrain, where largely Shia demonstrators took to the streets to demand greater democratic rights from the Sunni rulers.
One fear in Riyadh is that the 15 per cent or so of Saudi citizens who are Shia — and who largely live in the oil-rich eastern province — might mobilise in response to an Iranian call to arms.
“It is a kind of ideological struggle,” said a Ministry of Interior official. Describing Iran as a “paper tiger” because of its “dysfunctional government ... whose hold on power is only possible if it is able, as it barely is now, to maintain a level of economic prosperity that is just enough to pacify its people,” Turki, according to a copy of his speech at RAF Molesworth, said the rival state still had “steel claws”, which were “effective tools ... to interfere in other countries.”
This Tehran did with “destructive” consequences in countries with very large Shia communities such as Iraq, which Turki said was taking a “sectarian, Iranian-influenced direction”, as well as states with smaller ones such as Kuwait and Lebanon. Until Iraq changed course, the former intelligence chief warned, Riyadh would not write off Baghdad's $20bn debts or send an ambassador.
More worryingly for western diplomats was Turki's implicit threat that if Iran looked close to obtaining nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would follow suit. “Iran [developing] a nuclear weapon would compel Saudi Arabia ... to pursue policies which could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences,” Turki said.
A senior adviser said it was “inconceivable that there would be a day when Iran had a nuclear weapon and Saudi Arabia did not”.
“If they successfully pursue a military programme, we will have to follow suit,” he said. For the moment, however, the prince told his audience, “sanctions [against Iran] are working” and military strikes would be “counterproductive.”
One alternative, Turki told his audience, would be to “squeeze” Iran by undermining its profits from oil, explaining that this was something the Saudis, with new spare pumping capacity and deep pockets, were ideally positioned to do.
Money has long been a key foreign policy tool for Saudi Arabia. Turki's speech reveals the extent to which the kingdom is relying on its wealth to buy goodwill and support allies. In Lebanon, to counter Syrian influence and the Shia Hezbollah movement, the kingdom has spent $2.5bn since 2006.
The aim of such expenditure — only a fraction of the state's $550bn reserves — is to minimise any potential ill-will towards Saudi Arabia among populations who have deposed rulers backed previously by Riyadh.
King Abdullah, who has ruled Saudi Arabia since 2005, initially backed long-term ally Hosni Mubarak, reportedly personally interceding on his behalf with President Barack Obama.
“The calculation in Riyadh is very simple: you cannot stop the Arab spring so the question is how to accommodate the new reality on the ground. So far there is no hostility to the Saudis in Tunisia, Egypt or elsewhere, popular or political,” said Dr. Mustafa Alani, from the Gulf Research Centre, Dubai.
One difficult issue is that of the “unwanted house guests.” Saudi Arabia has a long tradition of offering a comfortable retirement home to ex-dictators, and two of the deposed leaders — Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen — are now in the kingdom. Ben Ali is reported to have been housed in a villa on the Red Sea coast. Saleh is in a luxury hospital receiving treatment for wounds caused by the bomb that forced his flight from the country he ruled for 21 years as president, and is now under pressure from his hosts to retire permanently.
Other regional rulers are being gently pressured to ease crackdowns, in part in response to western outcry over human-rights abuses, one official said.
Yemen, however, remains a major security concern to the Saudis, who worry about the presence of Islamic militants and Shia rebels who, again, they view as proxies of Iran.
“It is very important to make sure Yemen is stable and secure and without any internal struggle,” said one Interior Ministry official.
In his speech in the U.K., Turki worried that Yemen's more remote areas had become a safe haven for terrorism comparable to Pakistan's tribal areas.— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011