Saudi ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal flummoxed Washington when he notified US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and the embassy staff in Washington on Dec. 12 that he was leaving his post forthwith.
His abrupt departure after only 15 months in the most influential diplomatic position in Washington left a trail of bafflement; his predecessor, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had spent 22 years at the Washington embassy.
Turki came to the American capital from London, where he served as Saudi ambassador for two and a half years. That term was curtailed too. King Abdullah summoned him to relieve Bandar, whom he had appointed national security adviser.
The son of the third Saudi monarch, King Faisal, Turki was director of the Saudi General Intelligence Service for 23 years prior to his diplomatic career. He was fired, most unusually for a Saudi prince, in August 2001, just one month before the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks in the United States.
The proximity of the two dates prompted speculation that his dismissal was linked to past encounters with Osama bin Laden. It was even suggested that he should be held responsible for failing to provide advance warning of the attacks.
According to DEBKA-net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources, the suggestions were unfounded, put about by his royal enemies to blacken his name and block his further advance to high office.
In one interview, the prince tried to set the record straight by admitting that he had met bin Laden in his capacity as chief of intelligence on the authority of his superior: King Fahd, head of the rival Sudairi clan and Abdullah’s predecessor on the throne.
The more likely explanation for Turki’s dismissal as intelligence chief was his troubled relations with interior minister Prince Nayef, another scion of the Sudairi branch. Abdullah was still crown prince at the time and had to bow to Nayef’s wishes.
The dismissed prince then cooled his heels for eighteen months before the London embassy came on line, following his brother, foreign minister Saud al-Faisal‘s request for Abdullah’s assurance that losing intelligence had not ruined Turki’s political future.
Turki’s departure was linked to the Bush Iraq policy review
Once again, the timing of the Saudi prince’s exit from an important post raises questions.
He resigned his post suddenly just days after the release of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations for a policy review on Iraq and the Middle East.
If asked which part of the Bush administration’s policies drew Saudi ire – the line taken by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group or the policies pursued by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team – Riyadh is liable to reply: Both.
Before Prince Turki took off, he requested an early interview on very important business with US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. She acceded at once, little expecting to be treated to what DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive Washington sources describe as a harsh tirade.
The departing ambassador could not say who his successor would be, an indication of the suddenness of his departure, but he offered three remarks with a contemptuous bluntness unprecedented between a Saudi diplomat and a senior American statesperson.
– A world power should be feared, respected or liked, he said. The United States meets none of those requirements.
– World history teaches us that great powers must never stoop to petty political dealings with small tribes. The United States has violated this taboo in relation to Iraq and the Palestinians.
– What have you done to Bahrain? The ambassador asked Rice, referring to the US-initiated constitutional reform which led to the Shiites gaining a majority in the second round of national assembly elections held on Dec. 2. Most of the remaining seats fell to Muslim extremist candidates.
Turki did not need to point out that the king of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa is the most pro-American of all Gulf rulers, or that the US Fifth Fleet, a big American air base and the main offices of the big American banks operating in the region, including Saudi Arabia, are all located there.
But before he flung out, the Saudi prince warned the secretary of state that the Saudi government had no intention of following Bahrain in any American constitutional reforms for promoting democracy.
As to Iraq and broader issues, other Saudi spokesmen have made no secret of their views, which may be summed up as follows:
1. Firm objection to the US quitting Iraq before the country is stabilized. Turki said before he left: “Just picking up and leaving is going to create a huge vacuum. The US must underline its support for the Maliki government because there is no other game in town.”
2. Emphatic opposition to Iraq’s fragmentation along religious or ethnic lines.
3. Objection to any solution through diplomatic engagement with Iran. Iran must not be given a say in any future solution for Iraq – certainly not at the expense of the Saudi role.
As to the Baker-Hamilton recommendations on Iraq, there are broad dissonances on two major points: The strategy and timeline for the US withdrawal from Iraq and diplomatic engagement with Iran.
On these points, King Abdullah made his views clear to Cheney when they met in Baghdad two weeks ago.
Nawwaf Obeid – a Sudairi minion
On Nov. 29, three days after US Vice President Richard Cheney held talks with King Abdullah in Riyadh, The Washington Post ran an opinion column by the Saudi information and media consultant in the US, Nawwaf Obeid, in which he wrote that one of the first consequences of an American pullout from Iraq would be “massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”
He also predicted that Saudi Arabia could cut world oil prices in half by raising its production, a move that he said “would be devastating to Iran…”
This sounded like a Saudi threat to intervene in Iraq’s civil war on the Sunni Arab side against the Shiites and slash oil prices in a manner that Tehran would regard as a declaration of war.
But, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, neither Prince Turki’s views nor Obeid’s article has the power to influence the next policy moves on Iraq either in Washington or in Riyadh.
Nawwaf Obeid is an enigmatic figure.
He is at home in America. Eight years ago, he completed his postgraduate studies at the Kennedy School of Administration, upon which he went looking for a job in one of Saudi Arabia’s security services. He hoped to be helped by his father’s connections with defense minister Prince Sultan. Nawwaf’s father is rumored to have worked out of Geneva for the past 20 years an arms dealer linked to the defense ministry. Nawwaf expected him to open doors for a position in the minister of interior Prince Nayef‘s security service.
(Nayef and Sultan, like King Fahd, are full brothers of the Sudairi branch of the royal house).
Obeid was disappointed in his job expectations. But as long as he was unemployed he dubbed himself security adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah (before he ascended the throne), wrote articles for the press and went about trying to build up some sort of reputation as a high flyer in the United States and Saudi Arabia, without ever quite landing a real post as a security consultant.
His big chance came after 9/11, when his fluent English, familiarity with the American scene and ties with the embassy suddenly became prime assets for the challenging publicity stunts the Saudi government needed in a hurry after 15 of the al Qaeda hijackers proved to be Saudi nationals.
Turki fights for his place in the royal hierarchy
He did pretty well after than until ambassador Bandar’s recall to Riyadh at the end of 2004. The new ambassador Prince Turki did not owe a debt of friendship to Nawwaf’s father as did Sultan’s son. But he put up with him for a while until the point last year when the Sudairis started using him as a hired pen to undermine the new Saudi ambassador in Washington.
The article he published in The Washington Post on Nov. 29 was a great success in Sudairi circles and an example of the sort of service his masters expected of him: to act as the medium for bringing the Sudairi side of Saudi royal policy before the American public, while showing Ambassador Turki up as a figure outside the loop of Saudi policy-making.
Obeid had prepared the ground well for the next chapter in the royal battle in Riyadh. Prince Bandar was just getting ready to push Prince Turki out of the Washington embassy post, when the ambassador jumped. He was spurred by the deterioration in the health of his brother Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has served as foreign minister since their father, the king, was assassinated in 1975.
Turki returned home to claim his brother’s post as the al Faisal clan’s patrimony. The Sudairis want it for Bandar. Turki will have to fight with all his might to keep the foreign ministry and save the Faisal branch of the royal hierarchy and himself from going under in the royal power stakes.