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Ghazi Al Gosaibi Memorial Lecture: A Saudi View of Events in the Middle East

Event Date: 28/11/2016

Venue: The Morning Room, The Travellers’ Club, 106 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5EP.
Time: 5.30 p.m.

The 2016 Ghazi Al Gosaibi Memorial Lecture entitled “A Saudi View of Events in the Middle East” was given by HRH Prince Turki al Faisal, Chairman of the Board of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and Patron of the Saudi–British Society.

The full text of his talk is given below.

Sir Derek Plumbly,

Thank you for inviting me to speak at the Ghazi al Ghosaibi Lecture series. It is a privilege to address this distinguished audience.

Ghazi was not only a friend but a mentor. His work at the Court of St. James guided me in my first diplomatic posting, but his wit and erudition were indomitable. Today the Kingdom sorely misses those qualities which he so effortlessly displayed. I remember during one of the times when we were targeted more than usual in the American media, after the Camp David Accords, as the Kingdom opposed them, he gave a speech in Washington, I believe to the Press Club, in which he said: “You” meaning the Press, “accuse the Kingdom of being unstable, insecure, and corrupt.” Then he pulled out that morning’s edition of the Washington Post, and read to them the headlines: “Pentagon spends $50m to design a toilet seat.” “Street crime rises in nation’s capital and the number of murders has doubled in the last year.” “President Carter faces stiff opposition within the Democratic Party for the election of 1980.” He then asked them, “Who is corrupt, insecure, and unstable?”

He recounted to me once how, when on one of his social occasions as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, he had inadvertently fallen into his host’s swimming pool. Having then been found some dry clothes, which were not easy to find as he was huge, he came down and joined the other guests for dinner. When speeches began, he opened his with the following: “We can now say that the Saudi Ambassador has arrived with a splash!”
We miss you Ghazi.

Ladies and Gentlemen, when I took up my post as Ambassador after Ghazi al Ghosaibi, it was January, 2003. The Arab Peace Initiative was launched nine months before. The world was recovering from the shock and tragedy of September, 2001. The campaign to punish the Taliban for supporting bin Laden was in full swing, and he was on the run in the Tora Bora Mountains. The world was in full support of the American action in Afghanistan, and many countries even volunteered their sons and daughters to avenge the deaths in Manhattan. But, already, that solidarity was challenged by the bellicose campaign of President George W Bush to blame Iraq for that crime and for attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Iraq had been under the stiffest sanctions regime sanctioned by the UN, and Saddam’s mischief making was checked. Alas, two months later, in March of 2003, America, Britain and the coalition of the willing went to war against Iraq and without UN blessing. Your friends in Europe opposed the war, and most of your friends in the Middle East warned you against it. The late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia prophetically declared that war will only bring more war. The destruction of the institutions of state in Iraq and the recomposition of the Iraqi state into a sectarian and ethnic gholum unleashed the whirlwind which is now playing out in Iraq and Syria. I remember warning the Foreign Office of that and suggesting that when a constitutional convention is held in Iraq to set up the new state, that representation in it should be based on merit; by tribal representatives, because the tribes were composed of Shi’ah and Sunnah, as well as the marital links with Kurds, Christians, Yezidis, etc.; and by the village and town councils, where their members included all shades of Iraqi society; and by the trades unions, equally nonsectarian and multi ethnic. When Mr. Bremer abolished the state, and formed the governing committee composed on sectarian and ethnic lines, I asked the Secretary of State for the Middle East at the time what happened to my suggestion. He replied that the Americans considered the tribes to be archaic. I was interviewed at the time by one of your leading newspapers where I said that I hope that you will not leave Iraq as precipitously as you entered it. That suggestion was equally ignored.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the past years of Mr. Obama’s presidency raised expectations exultantly and then dashed them cruelly. Having appointed the respected Senator Mitchell as ME representative and declared that Israel’s colonization of Palestinian territory must stop, he brought jubilation to the long suffering Palestinian people who were, and are, chafing under Israeli occupation. But, it has turned out, he never really meant to push the Israelis to compromise. Having declared that Bashar al Assad must go and the use of chemical weapons a red line, he then retreated from that and praises himself for doing so. He did, however, dedicate himself, and his government, to sign the nuclear deal with Iran. He adroitly convinced the P5+1 to ratchet up the sanctions against Iran, which forced Iran to accept the deal. One must declare hats off to his zeal in achieving the agreement; to the extent where even Bashar’s use of chemical weapons went unpunished so that Iran will remain on the negotiating table. He criticized his friends as free riders and he is actively encouraging and licensing American companies to do business with Iran; while Iran is still on America’s list of countries that support terrorism. Saudi Arabia continues to work with President Obama on other issues. On Yemen, on combatting terrorism, and on broadening the commercial and human relations that the two countries have shared since 1945.

Today, Ladies and Gentlemen, is a new day. President Elect Trump has made many contradictory statements. To speculate now on what he will do would be like divining with a crystal ball. He has back tracked on some of his troublesome statements. King Salman sent him a congratulatory message stressing the strength of the relationship between our countries and hoping to work with Mr. Trump on solving the Israeli problem and the conflict in Syria. I hope that when he is fully briefed on these issues he will see that the Arab Peace Initiative is the only viable route to peace and the end of Israeli occupation of Palestine and other Arab territory, and that working with Russia in Syria is to abet the killing of thousands of Syrians and the destruction of the country. Hopefully, he will come to recognize that only through strengthening the moderate opposition so that it can defend itself against air attack, will there be progress in the negotiations. Mr. Trump’s declared intent to eradicate the terrorists should include Bashar. He is the biggest terrorist. Fahish and the other terrorists in Syria cannot compare to the level of atrocities that he has inflicted on his people. The millions of Syrians who are fleeing Syria are doing so because of Bashar, not Fahish and al Qaida. The hundreds of thousands who have been killed, were killed by Bashar, not Fahish and al Qaida.

Saudi Arabia has received two and a half million Syrians since 2011. We don’t put them in refugee camps. Those who want to stay are given residence permits. Those who wish to leave can make their way as they wish. More than half a million have chosen to stay. I also wish that Mr. Trump, instead of breaking the nuclear agreement with Iran, builds on it a Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Use the next fifteen years to build that zone by working to remove any obstacles, like the Israeli occupation of Palestine and other Arab territories. It is doable. Already, the UN reviews of the Non–Proliferation Treaty in 2010 and 2015 declared the intention to establish the zone. That would be the most sterling accomplishment of a Trump presidency. Let us wait and see what Mr. Trump will do. The destruction of Syria by the triumvirate of Russia, Iran, and Bashar continues, unabated. The rest of the world watches and some even call for closer cooperation with all three. It is like providing a murderer with a towel to wipe the blood of the victim and proceed as if nothing has happened. The shameful way that countries are hurtling to do business with Iran while it wreaks havoc and boasts about it in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen is a measure of the world’s cynicism and mercenary greed. The Iranian militias in all these countries are committing as vile and barbaric acts as Fahish or al Qaida. Yet, we never read in the media about their atrocities; nor do the socalled human rights organizations mention them while daily they issue disparaging statements, some of which have been proven to be false, about the Kingdom. The misnamed Hizballah boasts about what it does to the Syrian people. The equally misnamed Asaib al Haq and other Iran backed Shi’ah militias gloat over the suffering of the Iraqi Sunnah and behead men and pillage villages and towns.

But, Ladies and Gentlemen, the relationship with your government is sound and strong. Prime Minister May and her ministers have expressed profound friendship with the Kingdom. As the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, it will find that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a true and steadfast friend. Trade will continue to grow as well as the number of Saudi students who attend your universities. Thousands of them are here, already, and many thousands more have gone back armed with skills and knowledge that contribute to Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030. It has only been nine months since it was announced and adopted by the Council of Ministers, and yet, already, so–called pundits and experts have predicted its failure. I declare to you, that King Salman’s vision defies these so–called pundits and experts. It is not divine revelation and is flexible enough to meet any need for revision and alteration. He has delegated his Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to carry it forward. He ensures that if there are mistakes committed, the transparency and accountability written into it ensure that they will be rectified.

I am reminded of the time, forty years ago, when the Higher Commission for Jubail and Yanbu’ was launched. It was then disparaged as too ambitious, reckless, and undoable. Those of you who have visited Jubail and Yanbu’ can testify to their success. The railroad networks that are crisscrossing the country and the cities are transporting not only passengers but goods and minerals to be processed and exported. They have already spawned sub industries and services that enrich their owners. The Higher Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, under the guidance of HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman, has implemented a wide range of projects, refurbishing heritage sites and unearthing archaeological treasures that will overturn accepted wisdom on the development of human civilization. In the process, archaeological tourism has thrived, bringing with it jobs and investments. Education with market skills and the humanities will continue to thrive under the Vision. Employment for women will increase from the present 7% to 35% by 2030 and private enterprise contribution to GDP will grow from 40% to 65%. By 2030, and through the sovereign wealth fund established by the sale of government assets, like the 5% of Aramco shares, real estate, and other capital assets, government income will no longer be dictated by oil prices.

I am sure that many of you have already studied the Vision. Its appeal, Ladies and Gentlemen, is not for old fogies, or senior citizens, like myself. It is for the 70% of the Saudi population who are under 35 years old. Yemen remains a tragic story whose protagonists must be clearly identified. Your media and NGO milieu have muddied the water with so much propaganda and false reporting that in some quarters, the Kingdom is to blame and not the Houthis with their diabolical ally, the former president. The beginning was the outbreak of civil disobedience in 2011 when Ali Abdullah Saleh was president. Like all tyrants, he unleashed a bloody attempt to cow the people without success. The people would not be cowed. Taiz, the second largest city, is where the opposition to him ignited and spread to the rest of the country. In 2012, The Kingdom and the other GCC countries came with the initiative that led to the halt of the killing, the resignation of Saleh, the election of his vice president by popular mandate as interim President, the formation of a national unity government encompassing all political factions, the drawing up of a constitution, and the institution of national dialogue to decide the country’s future. All parties convened the dialogue, including the Houthis and the deposed president’s political party. They took two years and finally agreed on a federal state, constitution, elections, etc. However, just as these conclusions were about to be implemented, in September, 2014, the Houthis and Saleh launched a military campaign to conquer Yemen. They occupied the capital, Sana’a, imprisoned the duly elected legitimate president, his prime minister, and those in his cabinet who happened to be in Sana’a. They incarcerated thousands of their opponents, and they also released from jail the al Qaida prisoners who were awaiting trial. The president managed to escape from his jail and went to Aden, the recognized second capital of Yemen. He launched an appeal to the world community and when the Houthis and Saleh launched their tanks and aircraft to attack Aden, Saudi Arabia and her coalition partners came to the rescue of the legitimate government of Yemen.

The Kingdom, Ladies and Gentlemen, is not waging war on Yemen. The Kingdom and her coalition partners came to Yemen to defend and liberate the people from the usurpers who are murdering them and imprisoning them. UN Security Council Resolution 2216 stipulates that the Houthis and Saleh liberate the cities they occupied, release all the prisoners, including the cabinet ministers, return the weapons they stole from the government armories, and resume the national dialogue, which they so brutally abrogated. Since then, the Kingdom has cooperated fully with efforts of the UN and her friends, including this country, to establish a cease fire. The Houthis and Saleh do otherwise. They have not adhered to any cease fire and continue to launch ballistic missiles at the Kingdom, including the holy city of Makkah. They have indiscriminately and deliberately bombed civilian targets, not only in Yemen, but in the Saudi towns and villages near the border with the Kingdom. Taiz, where Saleh’s was first challenged, is besieged by them to starve the people into submission. The food and medical convoys that are agreed for the besieged cities under the various cease fire agreements, are confiscated by them.

Has any of you, Ladies and Gentlemen, seen any reporting of that in the Guardian or the Independent? Inevitably, in a conflict of this nature, civilians are victims. The Kingdom has scrupulously refrained from harming civilians. When it did happen, it was a mistake that was quickly admitted and compensation for the victims’ families provided. The Kingdom’s humanitarian support effort, carried out by the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre has helped millions of the Yemeni people in the areas that can be reached. In addition to the millions of Yemenis working in the Kingdom, a further two million have been hosted since the outbreak of hostilities. The Kingdom and its ally, the United Arab Emirates have chased out al Qaida from the capital of the Yemeni state of Hadramout, al Mukallah. Their remnants are pursued in the hills where they fled, and their terrorist reign over hapless villages has ended. One side in Yemen has abrogated all agreements, inflicts deliberate bombing of civilians, uses children for military purposes, and boasts about its intention to occupy Makkah and Madinah, in Saudi Arabia. It is supported by Iran. The other side is the internationally recognized government of Yemen, supported by the UN Security Council Resolution 2216, equally supported by the majority of the Yemeni people, adheres to UN sponsored cease fires, and fights the terrorists which the other side unleashed when it occupied Sana’a. These terrorists, al Qaida, were chased out of Saudi Arabia some years, ago. The man who is responsible for that is Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. As minister of the Interior, he has been delegated by King Salman to keep the Kingdom safe from such miscreants. He also conducts a rehabilitation program that is the model for other countries to follow. The program has successfully weaned countless numbers from following the path to terrorism. He also wages a constant campaign against drug smuggling, money laundering, and other criminal activity. Fahish is the target in his sights. King Salman’s public commitment to ridding the world of the scourge of terrorists is clearly seen in the establishment of the Islamic coalition to fight terrorists. It is partnered by forty countries, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has given it its blessing. It works with the world community to streamline intelligence, training, and financial resources.

Wahhabism, Ladies and Gentlemen, is not a Saudi invention. Sheikh Muhamma d bin AbdulWahhab, after whom it is named, followed the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH. His message was a Unitarian one, stressing the Oneness of God and the rejection of any association with Him, after the interpretation of Shaikh Ahmad ibn Hanbal, one of the recognized four Sunni jurists and their jurisprudence. When ibn AbdulWahhab began preaching against what had become idolatrous practices in Arabia in the mid seventeen hundreds, and his message began to spread throughout Arabia, Ottoman authorities, fearful lest it undermine them, designated it as a heresy and called it Wahhabism. In his rebuttal of this designation, the late King AbdulAziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, said, and I quote: “They call us Wahhabis. We have not proclaimed a fifth sect… We follow the Quran and Sunnah and the teachings of our salaf, forefathers. We accept the teachings of the four recognized Sunni jurists, Malik, al Shafi’i, Ahmad, and Abu Hanifah. We do not distinguish between them. In fiqh, jurisprudence, we follow ibn Hanbal.” Those who would associate the practices of pious Hanbalis, followers of ibn Hanbal, like Shaikh ibn AbdulWahhab, with al Qaida or Fahish, not only insult ibn Hanbal and his followers, but they deliberately target Saudi Arabia.

It is the Kingdom, Ladies and Gentlemen, which is leading the ideological battle against the perverse interpretations of Islam followed by these criminals. It is the Kingdom that is the target of their public condemnation and enmity. When bin Laden began his campaign, it was the Kingdom that stripped him of his citizenship. I was sent by King Abdullah to convince Mullah Umar to hand us bin Laden for trial. Saudi mosques, both Shi’ah and Sunna, and their congregations, were the victims of Fahish. Fahish has a transnational ideology which proclaims its enmity to the concept of the state. Its first act when it proclaimed itself was to remove the border markings between Iraq and Syria.

Iran, Ladies and Gentlemen, follows a similar transnational policy. It proclaims that the whole world must come under the writ of the absent Imam, who will one day reveal himself to humanity and bring it under his rule. Read Khomeini’s declarations and the constitution which he wrote and which directs the actions of his successor, Khamin’i. Khomeinism is no less ambitious or vicious than Fahish. The actions of his followers in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen speak for themselves. Fighting terrorism does not stop at bombing Fahish. It extends to Bashar for his actions and to Iran for unleashing their militias, wherever they can.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we the Arabs, bear the major responsibility for our sorry state. By the end of the eighties of the last century, we were beginning to come out of the divisions resulting from the Camp David accords. Egypt returned to the Arab fold and the Lebanese civil war ended through the Saudi mediated Taif accords. The rot within us returned on August 2nd, 1990, when an Arab leader invaded an Arab country and set in motion the spiral in which we are still spinning. Neighbours and far off friends and enemies took advantage of our infighting and self–inflicted wounds. Bad governance and self–aggrandisement afflicted some of our leaders. Terrorism found resonance in some of our youngsters. Popular upheavals challenged social order and economic growth. The only way we can overcome these challenges is to reunite our aims. We must look deeply into our psyches and recalibrate our ambitions towards reform and development of our societies. The 70% of our people who are under 35 years of age face a competitive world that brooks no laziness or reliance on handouts. Putting their shoulders to the wheels of progress is the only way that they will keep up with the rest of the world. That is what gives me hope because, from Mauritania to Bahrain, and despite the deadly conflicts within some of our countries, I see the seeds of a renaissance shooting out of our ground. The digital–savvy men and women who are pioneering our entrepreneurship in online inventiveness, is a joy to behold. In today’s tragedy–filled events, that is the only thing that brings a smile to my lips.

Thank you.

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