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A Tour d' Horizon of the Saudi Political Seas

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  • HRH Prince Turki AlFaisal
    December 15, 2011

    Ladies and Gentlemen,
    Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. I present to you a tour d' horizon, as sailors have called it for centuries. To conduct a tour d’ horizon is to simply take a 360 degree look around to assess the current weather conditions. Where there is calm, and where there are storms? And then, once the tour d’ horizon has been taken, the sailor turns his eyes to his ship itself - what is the condition of the vessel as it prepares to set to sea? Through this assessment the sailor can then determine the best way to guide his vessel safely to port.

    As you well know, the Middle East has entered a phase of profound transition, with governments crumbling, new social forces emerging, partnerships re-aligning, and international tensions – some quite old, some fairly recent – mounting and requiring re-assessments from all policy angles. However, while the general picture of Saudi Arabia's surroundings is predominated by this great turmoil, at the center of these many storms basks the Kingdom, which, I am glad to report, remains stable and secure thanks to the wise leadership of King Abdullah, evolutionary social and political reforms, a rising nationalism among the people, the continual investment of our government in infrastructure and security, and economic policies that have blessed our land with economic growth, budget surpluses and over $600 billion in foreign reserves. This is not to say that the Kingdom is without its challenges, both from within and outside its borders, but as I outline for you the various storms that mount upon our horizon, I also encourage you to keep in mind that the vantage point from which I view these tumults is safe and sound and has every intention of using its vast resources to help its neighbours weather the current difficult conditions.

    First and foremost among these storms are the political changes occurring in a host of Arab nations. While Saudi Arabia recognizes the wills of all people to determine their nation's leadership and accepts and in many cases supports the developments in its neighbouring countries, the Kingdom must remain focused on the difficult realities that almost always follow social upheaval based on popular uprisings. Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the lands from which the so-called Arab Spring, which I prefer to call Arab troubles, first sprang, have now entered stages of uncertain and difficult reorganization. All three countries' economies and social orders are in tumult. Strife in Yemen remains highly problematic. The situation in Bahrain seems to have stabilized for the time being, but problems could flare up again, as indicated by a recent discovery of an Iranian-supported plan to bomb installations including the Saudi embassy as well as the King Fahd Causeway. In Syria, a society now sits on the edge of an abyss of nightmarish internecine warfare, which could spill into Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. In response to the atrocities committed by Assad, the Arab League has proven itself to be capable of bold action through its decision to suspend Syria's membership and put strong political and economic sanctions against Damascus.

    While these tenuous conditions are of relatively recent emergence, several older problems – storms that have been brewing for some time, as it were – exist, and their outcomes appear equally difficult to determine. First among these, and intimately linked with the difficulties many Arab nations are now facing, is the case of the ambitions of Iran’s leaders. From our perspective, there are two overwhelming issues with them–their ambition to acquire nuclear weapons and their persistent meddling in the affairs of other nations. As for the issue of nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia continues to insist that Iran’s leaders should give up their goal of acquiring nuclear weapons and support, by deed, the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. This is clearly what is best for the future of the people of Iran and the region. And to convince Iran of this path, we fully support the tightening of sanctions, assertive diplomacy, and concerted action via the United Nations. The NPT review conference held last year in the UN called for a conference in 2012 to initiate action on the zone, which must be inclusive of all countries in the Middle East. The zone must include an incentives regime for countries that join composed, not only of technical and economic support for member countries to develop civilian uses of nuclear energy, but also a nuclear security umbrella for the zone’s member countries guaranteed by the five permanent members of the Security Council. It should also have a sanctions regime for countries that refuse to join which should not only be economic and diplomatic sanctions but also military action against those countries seen to be developing weapons of mass destruction, also guaranteed by the five permanent members of the Security Council.

    Of the second issue – Iranian leaders’ meddling in the affairs of sovereign Arab nations – we have seen ample and heinous evidence in the uncovering of an assassination plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir. The web of connections that were uncovered between the would-be assassins, elements of the Iranian government, especially senior members of the Quds force, and Mexican drug cartels indicates the depths of depravity and unreason to which the Ahmadinejad regime has sunk. Fortunately, this plot was foiled and we can only hope that those responsible are brought to justice and that those who are not will come to realize that such actions are entirely counter-productive to peace.

    But this is just the tip of the iceberg. All over the Arab world, the current leadership in Iran consistently and covertly meddles in the affairs of other governments by funding non-state entities like Hezbollah, and various other groups. I mentioned the discovery by Qatar of Iranian surrogates planning terrorist acts in Bahrain. In Iraq, Iranian interference has deprived the Iraqi people of an inclusive government. As Saudi Arabia looks out at Iran and considers what is to come in the next decade, it can only hope that the people of that nation will encourage their leaders to take a wiser and safer route than the one they now seem bent upon traveling, much to the detriment of themselves and others.

    Another storm of far longer gestation than the recent uprisings – a situation that lies at the center of so many difficulties faced by our region - is the plight of the Palestinian people. As former US President Jimmy Carter recently said, “the persecution of the Palestinians under the occupation forces is one of the worst examples of human rights deprivation.” And while many similar claims and counter-claims have been expressed on this issue the path to peace is clear. King Abdullah’s forthright Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 laid the groundwork for an end to hostilities: if the Israelis withdraw from occupied lands, including East Jerusalem, to their pre-June 4, 1967 boundaries and address the refugee situation through mutual agreement, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference will commence normal and peaceful relations with the State of Israel. And on the all-important issue of statehood, Saudi Arabia stands with those UN member nations who support a Palestinian state gaining recognition in that international body. Not only will this be a major moral victory, it will be a much-needed step in pushing forth substantive peace talks. Without statehood, the Palestinians cannot go to the negotiation table with Israel on an equal footing. It has been tried, and it has failed. Let us blaze a new path to solve this most urgent issue.

    When it comes to difficulties facing our region, one must still admit that terrorism remains an important threat. But it is not just Al Qaeda that continues to plot against us. There are also various emerging and re-emerging non-state actors who are moving in to take advantage of power vacuums created by shifting political dynamics. With governance in so many MENA nations in such tenuous states, the perfect conditions for terrorist cells to take root and conduct desperate, evil and anarchical acts are created. This is why Saudi Arabia continues to work with its allies, wherever it can find them, to stamp out this scourge of individuals who feel it is their right to visit heinous violence upon others in the name of false and destructive ends.

    All of these storms – Arab nations facing turmoil and violence, Iranian leaders’ regional aggressiveness, the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the creation and exploitation of terrorist enclaves – share a common thread in that they deeply influence the general state of security and stability in the region, and when one is discussing security and stability in the Middle East, one inevitably comes to the issue of global energy. This is primarily due to the importance of Saudi Arabia to the planet's energy supply and other factors. Iran, the UAE, Iraq, and Kuwait remain important suppliers of oil. Pipelines and shipping lines run throughout the region, crossing areas of great contention and conflict. The perceived stability of the region plays an ever more important role in oil markets and their influence on pricing, which inevitably affects almost every economy in the world.

    So, as we look out onto the wider horizon of the global energy market through the storm clouds of the Middle East, what do we see? Again, we see transition. As most of you well know, Europe and the United States remain important energy consumers, but Asia is coming to play an ever larger role in global demand. Also, almost every nation is looking to diversify its energy mix to take advantage of alternative fuel sources, both to foster what is called, “energy independence” and to prevent negative environmental effects. But from the Saudi perspective, it is not about energy independence, but energy inter-dependence, both for the good of our economies and our environment. So what we see, if only through the eyes of hope, are the wiser voices in each nation winning out and encouraging their governments to work together to guarantee an energy mix that comes from a variety of stable sources. Saudi Arabia, Ladies and Gentlemen, means to play a major role in helping them achieve that.

    I now address the Kingdom’s engagement with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I start by applauding the recent efforts to improve relations between India and Pakistan. Since both countries’ independence, wars, conflicts and a potential Armageddon have bedevilled the two neighbours. It is high time that the issue of Kashmir be resolved peacefully. Imagine the saving of lives; imagine the saving of heart aches; imagine the saving of finances. By removing this burden from the shoulders of both people, humanity will be all the worthier. The people of Kashmir deserve that. The rest of the people of the both countries deserve that.

    The Saudi people’s relationships with both peoples are the best, ever. Trade, travel, and educational cooperation are booming. There are more than one million Indians working and helping in the development of Saudi Arabia. Saudi financial investment is growing in India, bringing with it job opportunities in the superbly growing Indian economy. There are also more than one million Pakistanis working in the Kingdom and the traditionally friendly ties between Pakistan and the Kingdom remain on unshakable and solid foundations.

    Our relations with Afghanistan are equally strong. The contribution that the Kingdom made to help the Afghan people rid themselves of the hated Soviet occupation is a historic fact and while my country has hosted talks between President Karzai’s government and the Taliban, the Taliban have to declare an irrevocable divorce from the terrorists before they can be a credible partner for peace in Afghanistan. However, the Kingdom contributes both humanitarian and economic aid to the people of Afghanistan. Ending the war in Afghanistan is a priority for us; as is the withdrawal of all foreign troops from there. It would be extremely helpful to both Pakistan and Afghanistan to resolve the issue of the Durand Line, and by fixing the issue of Kashmir and the Durand Line, the Indian Sub-Continent can live in peace.

    This leads me to my final topic – Saudi Arabia itself – for inevitably every tour d’ horizon must be followed by an assessment of the ship's conditions so that the sailor may know of what it is capable, given the current weather patterns. I am happy to report that the Saudi ship of state is in quite good sailing condition.

    With 25 percent of the world's oil reserves and over 70 percent of global spare capacity, current projections for the next five years estimate that the Kingdom will earn on average of about $250 billion in oil revenues per year (for 2011, the projection is almost $300 billion). To maintain current oil export levels while at the same time fulfilling its growing domestic energy needs, the government is investing heavily in solar technology, and will spend more than $100 billion to build at least 16 nuclear power plants across the Kingdom. Solar energy will fill the gap in the short term, satisfying some incremental domestic energy needs, and within a decade, plans call for nuclear power to play the leading role in augmenting oil as a source of domestic energy. Thus, Saudi Arabia will be able to fuel the growth of its burgeoning economy without significantly reducing its oil exporting capability.

    I am also glad to report that Saudi Arabia's oil producing infrastructure has proven, and will continue to prove, safe from attack. This is not only due to the money spent on security and surveillance, but also due to the creation of a 35,000 strong facilities security force. These troops come from across the Kingdom and receive extensive training through a U.S. technical training program. This specialized force, which did not exist before 2005, has the exclusive responsibility of guarding all energy installations against both internal and external threats.

    In relation to the political storms addressed above, Saudi Arabia, as the birthplace of Islam and a leader of the Muslim and Arab worlds, has a unique responsibility to become involved in whatever way is prudent, fair and beneficial to help those states now experiencing ill weather to arrive to safer shores. We have every intention of carrying out that responsibility for the good of all. Not only through diplomacy, advisory missions and financial gifts, but also through a more robust foreign policy directed toward fulfilling our role as a contributor to regional stability.

    None of Saudi Arabia's efforts would bear fruit were they not emanating from a nation that has made great efforts, and I am proud to say that Kingdom has largely succeeded in those efforts, to create a nation that is stable and secure. The reasons for this are many. Over the last couple of decades our government has undertaken a series of reform measures – in education, in citizen participation, in security, in economic policy – that have born bountiful fruit. We now find among our population a rising tide of nationalist sentiment that is binding us together ever more firmly.

    Three particular examples of late show the mix of progressiveness, security, and stability that can be found in Saudi Arabia. In terms of progressiveness, last September, King Abdallah confirmed the right of women to vote and be elected in our electoral process as well as to be appointed to the Shura Council. On the issue of security, one only need look at what happened recently in the Kingdom – the Muslim Pilgrimage, or Hajj - 3 million Muslims from around the world came to Makkah to fulfil the fifth pillar of Islam. I'm sure that those of you here who deal in the logistics of setting up outposts for large numbers of personnel can appreciate the massive administrative and security issues that arise from a city of 3 million people suddenly emerging. Fortunately, and this is a credit to the Saudi officials involved as well as those pilgrims who made the journey, the entire massive event went off without a single hitch.

    Finally, on the issue of stability, with the passing of Crown Prince Sultan, who served us nobly as our Defense and Aviation Minister for nearly five decades, Crown Prince Nayef has been named the heir successor to the throne, proving the effectiveness of the succession process now in place. Those familiar with Crown Prince Nayef know that he is a staunch and loyal advocate for progress in the Kingdom, despite some reports in the Western press that have painted him as overly conservative and liable to undo many of the reforms started by King Abdallah. Indeed, Jihad El-Khazen, the well respected and versed journalist in Saudi affairs and who has personally interviewed Prince Nayef several times, when writing for al-Hayat newspaper in London put it well recently when he wrote, and I quote: “Prince Nayef will not abolish any decision made by King Abdallah; the rule in Saudi Arabia is not individual. Rather, it reflects the consensus of its leadership.” In short, the forward-looking reforms that we have seen in Saudi Arabia under King Abdallah, that have so well positioned the country to become a global leader in so many areas in the 21st century, will continue under any new leadership, for these reforms have been done for the overall good of the nation, not through the temporary whim of one leader.

    And now it is time to conclude my tour d’ horizon in order that I may get back to my position as a crew-member of the Saudi ship of state. As is often the case, my analysis has emphasized the storms, and perhaps given too little attention to the calm. Yes, Saudi Arabia remains an eye at the center of these storms, serene and consistent in its leadership position in the Arab and Muslim worlds. I also believe that among the storms taking place in other countries there are major glimmers of a coming calm. I believe that the people in those nations that have seen so much turmoil, God willing, and certainly with the assistance of Saudi Arabia, will work out their differences and arrive at safe shores. I believe that the terrorists will have a difficult time remaining hidden and that anti-terrorist measures – much like those taken in Saudi Arabia so aggressively over the last two decades – will guide the way for other nations' efforts to root out cells of destruction wherever they may be. I believe that sanctions, diplomacy, and common decency, if not internal instability and a change of leadership, will return Iran’s leaders to their senses and encourage them to pursue a more peaceful path. I believe that the Palestinians will see the long-awaited appearance of their own state, sooner rather than later, if the United States can shed the Israeli shackles that prevent it from supporting the just and unalienable quest of the Palestinian people for their freedom and independence from Israeli occupation and colonization. And I believe that our goal of energy interdependence is already being realized, and that we will work together, because we must, to arrive at the ideal energy mix from global sources. But most of all I believe that Saudi Arabia has an important and pivotal role to play in navigating these storms in order to show the way to all nations seeking to safely steer their ships of state. And with that I say, safe sailing to us all, and may we soon find ourselves tied securely to the shore, if only to conduct repairs and gain provisions for our next great voyage. Thank you.