Last September 11, Villa Mondragone – historical sixteenth-century residence in Monte Porzio Catone, close to Rome, acquired by the Second University of Rome Tor Vergata, in 1981 – hosted Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal. On the occasion, the Prince – who was honoured with the title of Professor Emeritus Honoris Causa – gave a lecture on the geopolitical situation in the Middle East.
Turki al-Faisal, born in 1945, is the youngest son of King Faisal (1964-1975). He studied at prestigious universities such as Georgetown University, Princeton, Cambridge and the University of London. At the beginning of his career, he served as advisor in the Royal Court. He’s been the Director of the Saudi Intelligence Service for 23 years (1979-2001). He then served as Ambassador in UK and Ireland (2003-2005), and in the United States (2005-2006). He also serves in the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.
Very well educated, Turki al-Faisal is considered a man of science and culture. Also, he is considered a moderate, a supporter of the reform of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a promoter of dialogue. The lecture given at Villa Mondragone was indeed very soft-spoken. The very voice of this 70-year old man is gentle and calm. However, the concepts he put forward did not depart from the official guidelines of Saudi foreign policy.
Turki al-Faisal dealt essentially with two issue: Iran and the regional crises close to Saudi Arabia, in Syria and Yemen.
Very obvious was the long tirade against Iran, even if expressed in soft tones. According to Turki al-Faisal, the main issues concerning Iran are three: (i) its resolution to acquire nuclear weapons; (ii) its occupation of three islands belonging to the UAE; (iii) its meddling in Arab Countries‘ domestic affairs and promoting sectarianism.
Turki al-Faisal states that Saudi Arabia does not challenge Iran’s right to develop nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes. However, he insists Iran aims at acquiring NW and that it would trigger nuclear proliferation in the region and beyond, which, in turn, would increase instability and insecurity.
He mentions the nuclear deal negotiated between the P5+1 (the UNSC permanent five plus Germany): “It is our hope that the new agreement will ensure the termination of Iran’s nuclear weapons activities. Saudi Arabia has welcomed this agreement based on this hope, but at the same time, we will be watching the way it is implemented and how it reflects on Iranian behaviour.”
Another burning issue is Iran’s meddling in Arab Countries’ domestic affairs, which is intertwined with the issue of sectarianism. “Sectarianising our region is no less threatening and destructive than nuclear weapons, and here I may say that I was glad to hear Iranian officials stating that conflict between Sunna and Shia is a real regional security threat. This admission is welcome and this should make Iran look in the mirror and see its horrid behaviour since 1979 and see who is behind igniting such a destructive threat. Nothing but Iran revolutionary syndrome is behind horrors.” Turki al-Faisal maintains that Iran is funding non-State actor and sectarian groups across the Arab world, from Lebanon to Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. He is sceptical about Iran’s real intentions and accuses the Persian neighbour of destabilising Arab Countries, threatening their national unity and disrupting their social fabric.
“Saudi Arabia looks at Iran and considers what is to come, and we 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 bend upon travelling […]The grand project of pax iranica is doomed.”
Turki al-Faisal talks about the grave crisis in Syria and the danger that it spills over to threaten the whole world. He doesn’t fail to mention the exodus of refugees to Europe, as well. He says: “It is unfortunately becoming an issue of Power politics between great Powers.” He’s right. No doubt, the Syrian crisis reached intolerable levels of violence and human misery. The international community appears unable to tackle the crisis rationally. The Prince’s ideas on how to solve the crisis and preserving the Country’s unity, sovereignty and stability while ensuring Syrian people’s aspirations are fulfilled are vague, at best.
He talks about military pressure: “The mentality of Assad, as we know it, responds when faced with force. However, Saudi Arabia is not for bombing.” The Saudis state they support the legitimate demands of the Syrian people and they are willing to stand by their side in the quest for a peaceful solution. Yet, Turki al-Faisal forgets Saudi use of barrel bombs in Yemen. This crime (the UN banned barrel bombs), makes the Saudi regime very similar to Assad’s regime in Syria – a regime that uses barrel bombs and chemical weapons against its own population –, despite the rhetoric of peace. At the same time, Saudi readiness to bomb Yemen is strikingly at odds with the caution showed for the same approach in Syria.
From north to the southern border, Turki al-Faisal deals with the war in Yemen. As far as the intervention in Yemen is concerned, he puts forward the same argument officially advanced by the Saudi regime: even if the Yemeni crisis is interconnected with the other crises in the region, it concerns Saudi Arabia directly. It represent a serious and immediate threat to the Kingdom. “Stability and tranquillity in Yemen has always been a national strategic interest for Saudi Arabia due to geographical, historical, demographic and strategic factors. Therefore, preserving peace and security and empowering the Yemeni State and their friendly and brotherly political regime that keeps the national balance in Yemen, and achieve these goals was always Saudi priority.” These words seem to confirm the notion that Saudi Arabia has the habit of dealing with Yemen as if it was a Saudi province.
The Prince emphasises that Saudi Arabia invested $60 billions in Yemen, over the last 50 years, and hosted millions of Yemeni whose remittances contributed to the Country’s welfare. He retraces the history of Yemeni uprising and the fall of President Ali Abdallah Saleh, recalling that it was Saudi Arabia and its sisters (the other Gulf monarchies) that came up with a plan for Saleh’s abdication and the transition to a new social contract in the name of a peaceful and democratic future. “Alas, the Houthis, one of the religious and political forces participating in the national dialogue, armed with weapons and Iranian support, and the forces loyal to the former President took advantage of the turmoil to write a different future for Yemen.”
According to him, the UN failure to promote a deal that could save the State and its institutions left Saudi Arabia with no choice but to intervene militarily or, in his very words, “to try to save Yemen and free it from these gang-minded militias by all means, and take it back to the legitimate path chosen by all Yemenis on deciding the future of their country. War was the last resort for Saudi Arabia in Yemen but allowing the Houthis to get away with their agenda will not only threaten peace and security in Yemen but also in the whole Arabian Peninsula and Red Sea area.” (In fact, Saudi Arabia closed Yemeni ports in order to prevent Iran from delivering weapons to the rebels.)
Turki al-Faisal states that this radical ideological minority (a Shi’ite minority) serves foreign interests and he somehow confirms that the war in Yemen is a proxy–war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, even though Iran denies giving material support to the Houthis.
The Prince talks about terrorism as well: Daesh (Islamic State), al-Qaeda and other actors insinuating in the void left by crumbling States and political volatility. “The failure of world and American political arrangements in Iraq, the failure of the international community and the regional Powers to deal seriously with the situation in Syria led to the emergence of the so-called Islamic State. In Arabic we call it Daesh, I prefer to call it Fahesh, which means ‘obscene’. With it emerged a new way of bold terrorism. The ideology of Fahesh is transnational by its very nature and therefore constitutes an existential threat to the concept of the Nation-State in our region.”
(Faisal al-Turki briefly mentions the Palestinian question, too. He accuses Israel of refusing the attempts of Arab and Muslim Countries to tend their hands.)
The Prince concludes his lecture saying that “the absence of world leadership and the reluctance to world Powers to act responsibly is allowing a continuing deterioration of the situation in the Middle East. Let us hope that the world come to its sense soon.”
A version of this article was published in Italian on L’Indro 18/09/2015
 Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunbs were taken from Iran by the British in 1921. In 1971, when British forces moved out, the Iranians took over. However, the British Protectorate had them assigned to the UAE.