Prince Turki al-Faisal

...a profile

[New York Times]...

As Saudi Arabia mourns King Fahd, whose death was announced Monday, it would be hard to find a more telling symbol of the contradictory nature of U.S.-Saudi relations than Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudis' new ambassador to the United States. As head of Saudi intelligence from 1977 to 2001, he personally managed Riyadh's relations with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar of the Taliban. Anyone else who had dealings with even a fraction of the notorious characters the prince has worked with over the years would never make it past a U.S. immigration counter, let alone to the most exclusive offices in Washington.

Turki could actually turn out to be a good choice for Saudi Arabia's most important diplomatic post. He is intimately familiar with the essential issues, extremely well connected at home and generally on the right side of Riyadh's internal debate over political reform. But at the very least, his appointment should stimulate serious discussion of the darker aspects of Saudi Arabia's historic relations with the world of Islamic extremists and terrorists. This is an issue that the Bush administration, like its predecessors, has been reluctant to confront. With Turki as the official face of Saudi Arabia in Washington, the charade should at last be over.

Saudi Arabia is an unregenerate absolute monarchy whose kings and princes live in luxury but are publicly dedicated to upholding and propagating the teachings of the puritanical and militantly intolerant Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. It also happens to sit on top of vast petroleum reserves that the modern industrial world seems unable to learn to live without.

Those basic facts have long explained just about everything important about U.S. relations with Riyadh, including why the world's most dynamic democracy has heaped undeserved praise and costly defense guarantees on a regime where politics means the royal court, justice means the lash and the sword, financial accountability means dividing oil revenues among high-living princes and women's rights mean nothing at all.

Since the 1970s, the Saudi royal family has been deploying the kingdom's oil wealth abroad in an increasingly desperate effort to protect its power at home. Turki, as intelligence chief, was frequently at the center of the action.

What particularly frightened and galvanized Saudi Arabia's ruling Sunni royalty was the 1979 Shiite revolution in Iran. Riyadh responded by subsidizing the export of its own Wahhabi brand of Sunni fundamentalism. Saudi billions poured into Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980s, financing local mujahedeen fighters and Arab adventurers, like Osama bin Laden, who flocked to join them. Saudi Arabia also financed hundreds of madrasas that taught combative strains of Islam and sent graduates to Afghan training camps for instruction in armed jihad. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Riyadh started to view these foreign adventures as a useful safety valve for disillusioned Arab guerrilla veterans who might otherwise direct their energies and anger at the Western-allied Saudi royal regime. During these years, the Saudis also poured money into building a network of Wahhabi mosques, schools and bookstores in the impoverished Muslim suburbs of Western Europe.

Turki's long tenure in the intelligence job abruptly ended less than two weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks under unexplained circumstances. Private lawsuits alleging links between Turki and the attacks have since been dismissed by an American court. His final years in the intelligence job were apparently spent trying unsuccessfully to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, by then a declared enemy of the Saudi royal family. Since 2002, Turki has served capably as Saudi Arabia's ambassador in London, where he pressed the British government to be less indulgent toward Islamic preachers of violence.

Turki is neither a terrorist nor a religious zealot. He is a capable, loyal and Westernized member of the Saudi royal family. That makes him the ideal person for the Bush administration to speak frankly with about finally persuading Riyadh to play a less ambiguous role in the global struggle against terror committed in the name of Islam.


Running Saudi Arabia's intelligence service is not a job for the faint-hearted. During the 24 years that Prince Turki al-Faisal ran the organisation he had intimate dealings with the world's two most notorious outlaws, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

"The most glaring similarity between them is that they do not mind shedding innocent blood. In both cases, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden made it an aim of theirs to shed the blood of the innocent."

Prince Turki al-Faisal Prince Turki, 57, a direct descendant of King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi kingdom, is speaking surrounded by the splendour of the Saudi Arabian embassy in London where he has recently taken up residence as ambassador. Given the clandestine nature of his previous profession, the urbane, Cambridge-educated prince is normally reticent about speaking in public.

However the continuing controversy concerning the Saudi government's alleged involvement with bin Laden and the September 11 suicide attacks has prompted him to break cover to defend both the reputation of his country and himself.

The Saudi ambassador is named in a £600 billion law suit that has been launched by the families of those killed in the September 11 attacks against a number of Saudi princes, banks and charities that are alleged to have helped fund the terrorists responsible for the attack.

And the Saudi government, in the form of Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister and Prince Turki's brother, has expressed its extreme displeasure at the American government's decision to withhold 28 pages of a congressional report that has cast suspicion on the kingdom's role in the attacks.

Yesterday the New York Times reported that the classified section says that two Saudi citizens who had indirect links with some of the hijackers were probably Saudi intelligence agents and may have reported to Saudi government officials.

Speaking in his first British newspaper interview since taking up residence in London last January, Prince Turki is diplomatic about the charges that have been levelled against him personally. "When you work in the intelligence business for nearly 30 years you expect to get a lot of flak, especially when you are undertaking intelligence operations," he told The Telegraph.

"I am not saying that I am thick-skinned about it or affected by it; of course I am. But I am here to do a job. Hopefully I will succeed in doing that job regardless of such attention."

But Prince Turki is more forthright when tackled about Washington's decision to classify sections of the congressional report into September 11 that relate to Saudi Arabia. "All of us are very angry," he declares.

"We are accused of something and they will not tell what we are accused of. We're asked to do things and we don't know what we are supposed to do. And those who have seen those 28 pages have come out and issued statements about Saudi Arabia that are vicious and, from our point of view, completely untrue," he says, emphasising his profound sense of indignation by re-arranging his gold-braided Arab head-dress.

One of the main reasons, of course, that Saudi Arabia's conduct is under such intense scrutiny is that bin Laden was in many respects a creation of the Saudi intelligence community when the Saudis were actively supporting Islamic fighters during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. As the head of Saudi intelligence during that period, Prince Turki had several meetings with bin Laden, although he firmly rejects any suggestion that he has had dealings with the al-Qa'eda leader since he founded the terror group in the early 1990s.

"At that time [during the 1980s] I would describe him as gentle and self-effacing, and hardly talking to anyone. Very shy," says Prince Turki. "There has been a remarkable transformation. Now he is in a self-deluding, maniacal stage where he believes that he is the annointed of God and everybody else is in league with the devil."

The prince also insists that it was wrong to categorise al-Qa'eda as a predominantly Saudi organisation. "al-Qa'eda did not come out of Saudi Arabia, it came out of Afghanistan," he says. "The fact that bin Laden is the leader of al-Qa'eda does not mean to say that it is a Saudi organisation or group."

While Prince Turki's critics concentrate their energies on his relations with bin Laden and al-Qa'eda, relatively little attention is paid to his dealings with Saddam Hussein - even though his previous job required him to play a central role in monitoring the former Iraqi dictator's weapons of mass destruction programme.

As a consequence of Saddam's ill-fated invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Prince Turki spent most of the ensuing decade working closely with British and American intelligence officials trying to find out whether Saddam continued to pose a threat to the region.

Although Prince Turki stepped down as Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief on September 1, 2001, just 10 days before the World Trade Center attacks, he remains deeply sceptical about Saddam's alleged links with both weapons of mass destruction and bin Laden's al-Qa'eda network.

"Having worked closely with the British and American intelligence services on both these issues, we had not by then found any such weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or links between al-Qa'eda and Iraq," he says.

"We definitely received lots of information on both these issues and, knowing how Saddam cheated on the efforts of the UN inspectors since 1991 it was not beyond the imagination to think that he was seeking these weapons of mass destruction. But there was never ever any proof."

Prince Turki reassumes his diplomatic persona when I inquire whether the Saudi Arabian intelligence assessment of the threat posed by Saddam was relayed to his British and American counterparts. After all, these were the main justifications given for the war to remove Saddam. "We shared our information with all our friends, not just the British and Americans," he says.

As for the war itself, he refuses to be drawn on whether or not it was justified, stating simply that he is happy that the Iraqi people are now masters of their own destiny.

And what of Saddam himself? Would the Saudis be prepared to offer him refuge, just as they did with Idi Amin, the former Ugandan dictator. Prince Turki, in a reference to Amin's recent ill health, quips: "If Saddam is going to come in a coma, then maybe we will accept him."

"Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for lost faith in ourselves." 
Eric Hoffer    (1904-1983)