The close bonds of friendship between Saudi Arabia and the United States and America's role as protector of the throne have long been a central pillar of both their national policies, albeit with due attention to avoiding stubbing sensitive toes.
This delicate formula was shattered on Saturday, May 15 by Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who delivered the most scathing attack on America ever heard from a Saudi high-up.
Prince Turki and his brother, foreign minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, belong to the powerful royal triangle headed by King Abdullah, which rules the kingdom, often counter-balanced by the fiercely pro-American rival Sudairi clan headed by the defense minister Crown Prince Sultan.
Turki is also the senior ideologue at the king's side.
A former ambassador to London and Washington, he came to diplomacy from his job as Saudi intelligence chief during the period of Osama bin Laden's rise and the al Qaeda 9/11 attack on the United States. While holding the formal title of Director of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, Turki is believed to have preserved the confidential contacts he built up on behalf of the Saudi throne with the al Qaeda leader and the Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar in the past. He is therefore regarded as commanding a rare inside track on both movements and an ace specialist in the undercurrents at work in the Afghanistan and Pakistani conflicts.
Given his background, the ex-ambassador is also well aware of the weight words carry.
US is judged inept, ignorant and arrogant
His diatribe against the Obama administration was therefore taken seriously by experienced observers talking to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources as most probably representing the views of the Saudi monarch. He may even have been repeating comments he heard from Abdullah in secret conclaves at the Royal Palace with regard to Obama administration policies and issues of the day concerning the Middle East, Afghanistan, Palestinian-Israel peacemaking, Iran, Iraq and Syria's domination of Lebanon.
According to one source, the octogenarian Abdullah views US President Barack Obama and Syria's Bashar Assad in a similar light as youthful, inexperienced heads of state, who keep on falling into serious strategic errors.
He sees no sign that Obama, after 14 months in the White House, is beginning to appreciate and correct his blunders and has voiced the fear that without a radical policy reassessments and revisions, his failures will multiply.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly takes the most salient of Prince Turki's comments point by point:
America's standing in the Middle East: The US has lost the "moral high ground" gained in the Middle East after 9/11 because of its "negligence, ignorance and arrogance."
Afghanistan: "The inept way in which the US has dealt with President Karzai beggars belief… The result is that both sides are resentful of each other with a sour taste in their mouths."
Turki disapproves of President Obama's strategy of foregoing victory and focusing on weakening the Taliban enough to bring them to the bargaining table on their knees. The Saudi prince urges a much tougher strategy. "The US should hunt down the terrorists on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, arrest them or kill them and get out and let the Afghan people deal with their problems. A continuing US presence only fuels the conflict. As long as GI boots remain on Afghan soil, they remain targets of resistance for the Afghan people."
US needs a reset button for tactics against a nuclear Iran
The Saudi prince had nothing but contempt for the latest notion going around Washington whereby any reconciliation scenario must reflect Pashtun culture. American grasp of the Afghan psyche and US field intelligence is seriously wanting, he found – even after a close to a decade in the country.
As the prince put it, "The Taliban of today are not the same as a decade ago. They are no longer exclusively Pashtun warriors. They are any and every Afghan of whatever ilk who raises arms against the foreign invaders. By declaring them the enemy, America has declared the people of Afghanistan the enemy."
Iran: "The International community's stance (led by US) over its nuclear ambitions has been on the wrong footing since the start; the 'reset button' needs to be pushed. The stick and carrot approach will not work and there has to be a level playing field." The Saudi prince argued: "You cannot ask Iran to play on one level while you allow Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea to play on other levels."
Turki was highly critical of US handling of the nuclear issue and its wider regional implications, singling out Hillary Clinton in particular. "She has damaged efforts to make the Middle East nuclear-weapon-free when I hope President Obama, who has made universal disarmament his goal… will find the way to correct his Secretary of State's nullification of making our area free of weapons of mass destruction," he said.
US should recognize Palestinian state, then pack up and leave
Iraq: Prince Turki was especially pessimistic about Iraq's prospects as American forces prepare to withdraw. "The consequences," he forecast, "would be more bloodshed and potential civil war."
International guarantees are vital to ensure Iraq remains a functioning sovereign state, he said. The alternative would be "regional conflict on a scale not seen since the Ottoman-Safavid wars of the 17th and 18th centuries." America's venture in Iraq was a failure, as far as he is concerned, because civil war has now become impossible to prevent.
Israel and the Palestinians: "President Obama had proved eloquent in his vision of a two-state solution for the Palestinian issue, but this is not enough. He has to be equally eloquent in implementing it."
Turki wants the US to be the "Big Bear pushing us all" – Israelis and Arabs alike – to make it happen. "It is not enough to talk the talk. He has to walk the walk. If there is no resolution by the September deadline set by the Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo earlier this month, the US should recognize the Palestinian state," says the Saudi prince, and then "pack up, leave us in peace and let the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese negotiate directly with the Israelis."
Does the Middle East need America?
In other words, in the view the Saudi royal faction led by King Abdullah, the United States has exhausted its usefulness in just about all the key regions of conflict. America should leave Afghanistan and let its inhabitants solve their conflicts, and quit its involvement in the Middle East – which is going nowhere – and leave solutions in the hands of the regional powers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources translate Prince Turki's comments as representing a radical departure from Riyadh's fundamental, historic acceptance of an American presence in the Middle East as the only true guarantee of Saudi territorial integrity and the key bulwark of the Saudi throne.
His words count in Washington because he would never have spoken so bluntly without the monarch's sanction. Do those words of criticism reflect rumbles in Riyadh questioning America's continuing ability to perform as the Saudi Royal Family's champion?
Not yet, perhaps, but the Obama administration is beginning to heed them as a warning signal that America's Middle East role as protector should not be taken for granted.