Editor's note: Saudi Arabia's aging King Abdullah is in the United States for medical treatment, stirring renewed questions about succession to the throne and whether that ascendant royal would be a reformist or a more traditional ruler. One of the key royals who figure prominently in any palace reshuffle is Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who in a recent interview with GlobalPost offered his views on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Iranian nuclear threat and the direction of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — There are few Saudi royals as deeply knowledgeable about the shifting sands of Middle East politics — or as candid in their assessments — as Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal.
In a wide-ranging interview with GlobalPost, Prince Turki, the longtime head of Saudi foreign intelligence, offered a bleak assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian talks, a firm rebuke of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as “misguided” and a grave warning that a U.S.-sponsored attack on Iran to take out its nuclear program would be “calamitous” for the Middle East and the world.
“These are very difficult times in the region, a very challenging moment,” said Prince Turki, 65, who served as Saudi ambassador to Washington and as the head of Saudi foreign intelligence services for nearly 25 years.
Prince Turki was visiting Harvard University this week and spoke before the Kennedy School of Government as part of the Crown-Belfer seminar series. Among palace watchers, he is widely believed to be in line to become Saudi Arabia's next foreign minister, a position now held by his brother, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Despite his diplomatic career, Turki is known to rarely mince words.
He said if the Israeli-Palestinian talks fail again and the 90-day settlement freeze by Israel is lifted without significant progress, Saudi Arabia would “most definitely support the Palestinians in taking the issue of statehood to the United Nations.”
“Why wouldn’t we? After all that is how Israel did it,” he said, referring to the 1948 United Nations resolution that granted statehood to Israel.
“This shouldn’t take 90 days, it should take nine minutes,” he said, adding it “only takes political will on the part of Israel” and “leadership from the United States” to achieve a two-state solution.
I first met Turki in 1996 in the aftermath of the Khobar Tower bombings, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen who lived in the complex and wounded more than 350 others. At that point, the kingdom was just coming to terms with the threat posed by what was then nascent Al Qaeda.
In the years that followed, the House of Saud was slow to recognize the militancy emanating out of the kingdom, but Turki has persistently denied that the kingdom did too little to confront the terrorist network. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi. It was August 2001 when Turki resigned as intelligence chief.
Since then Turki served as ambassador to the U.K. and to the U.S. and now is an adviser to the king from his perch at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. And since then Saudi Arabia has sought what is commonly referred to as “reform” in stepping up intelligence cooperation with the U.S. and in trying to moderate the religious establishment and to change its education system to curtail the militancy that was pulsing there.
These stepped up efforts and deeper cooperation were apparent when Saudi intelligence warned the U.S. in early October, according to The New York Times, that Al Qaeda elements in neighboring Yemen were planning to attack planes with parcel bombs, a plot thwarted just before it was carried out.
Turki says that Saudi Arabia is an active ally of the U.S. in crushing Al Qaeda in Yemen and everywhere it can. But he questioned the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan for straying from its original mission of going after Al Qaeda and focusing instead on the Taliban.
“The original campaign was targeted against terrorism and terrorists. There has been a veering away from that goal,” he said, explaining that the shift of focus to fighting the Taliban creates a scenario in which the U.S. will ultimately lose. The key, he said, is to sever the Taliban from Al Qaeda through leverage and diplomacy and then capture and/or kill the Al Qaeda leadership.
“The Taliban has been identified as the enemy and I think that is wrong. They are not a cohesive organization. They are fractured. And as the U.S. increases presence in Afghanistan to fight them, they just offer more targets and more opportunity for their ranks to grow,” he said.
Turki said that the U.S. should refocus efforts on Al Qaeda. To do that, he said the U.S. should pull together a wide grouping of countries who have suffered at the hands of Al Qaeda, such as India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Egypt, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Spain, Morocco and, of course Pakistan, to coordinate intelligence and to target Al Qaeda in a global alliance against the terrorist group.
“Put a plan of action in place to capture or eliminate the leadership of Al Qaeda, and I am sure they can succeed in doing that," he said. "By eliminating them or capturing them you can claim victory and then leave” Afghanistan.
Turki explained that talks between the Taliban and the government in Afghanistan were “a work in progress” and that they had begun at the invitation of Saudi Arabia two years ago. GlobalPost reported on these talks in their infancy in 2009.
That, Turki said, was when Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil, a former Taliban foreign minister from the deposed government, met with President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Qayum. There is new information coming out, Turki added, that “Saudi mediation is working.” Still, he added, the talks have a way to go.