Friday, August 19, 2005

Intelligence Brief: Saudi Arabia

Drafted By: Giuseppe Anzera

At the end of July, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, handed in his resignation. During the 22 years in which he held this position, he managed to exert undisputable influence over successive U.S. administrations. However, his replacement appears equally capable: the next Saudi ambassador to Washington will be Prince Turki al-Faisal.

Born on February 15, 1945 (the very day on which King Abdul Aziz al-Saud and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt met on board the USS Quincy and agreed on the "enduring relationship" that has linked the United States and Saudi Arabia up to the present day), at age 14 Turki was sent to boarding school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. He subsequently enrolled at Georgetown University in the same year as future President William Clinton, but left before graduating and then completed his studies by obtaining a degree from Oxford. His father, King Faisal, had reigned over Saudi Arabia from 1964 until his murder in 1975. Prince Turki's career has been pursued mostly within the General Intelligence Directorate (G.I.D.), Riyadh's main intelligence service, which he headed from 1977 to 2001.

Background of Prince Turki

His appointment to the G.I.D., which came almost by chance due to the need to maintain a precarious balance of power among the various clans in the Saudi royal family, would make him one of the longest lasting and authoritative intelligence chiefs in the world. Under Turki's leadership, the G.I.D. transformed into a modern information service; as a member of the Safari Club (which brought together the intelligence chiefs of France, Morocco, Egypt, Arabia and Iran in an anti-Soviet effort during Washington's difficult Watergate phase), he exerted a determinant influence on Afghani events following the Soviet invasion.

From 1980 onward, Turki committed the G.I.D. to the task of providing financial support for the mujahideens' war-effort against the Soviets, channelling vast amounts of funding to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.), subsidizing jihadis from all over the Middle East who wanted to participate in the anti-communist crusade, and assisting the efforts that the C.I.A. was starting to make in the same direction.

The impact of Turki's influence determined who was to prevail among the Afghani leaders; his funding laid the foundations for the Islamic volunteer groups who fought in Afghanistan (giving rise to the formation of groups such as al-Qaeda) and enabled the I.S.I. to attain such importance that it became a parallel government in Pakistan. It was Turki who made a deal with the C.I.A. that Riyadh would supply I.S.I. with an amount equal to the funding provided by U.S. intelligence, thus pouring huge sums of money onto the Afghani chessboard.

Turki had known Osama bin Laden since 1978; bin Laden became one of the lynchpins of the G.I.D.'s funding policy toward the I.S.I. and anti-Soviet warfare in Afghanistan, and he met with Turki several times in Islamabad. Many years afterward, in 1998, when bin Laden had already become engaged in an anti-American crusade, Turki was responsible for requesting his extradition by Mullah Omar, but did not succeed in this task.

Turki's exit from the G.I.D. stirred the rumor mills since it occurred on August 31, 2001, less than two weeks before the September 11 attacks and just after his appointment had been confirmed for another four years. In 2002, he was appointed Saudi ambassador to London. In 2005, Turki was cleared of the accusation of having financed the terrorist groups responsible for the September 11 attacks.

Turki is an extraordinarily controversial figure. His appointment strengthens ties between Washington and Riyadh, and sends the U.S. someone whom the administration cannot help but appreciate; on the other hand, his appointment deprives King Abdullah of a precious advisor, a trusted confidant and a useful bulwark against the royal family's ultra-conservatives such as Prince Sultan, who would like to wrench Saudi Arabia free from Washington's sphere of influence.

For Turki, this appointment is certainly an important recognition of his career in general, and of his ability to liaise with Americans in particular, although in the present political and economic situation a figure of such significant capabilities might well act effectively in the domestic context by staying at home.

The Bottom Line

Turki's appointment in the U.S. appears likely to enhance U.S. effectiveness in the "war on terrorism" and to deprive al-Qaeda of an important target at home. The prince looks to be the right choice when considering the common U.S.-Saudi effort to manage the complex relations between the Bush administration and the new king.

Both the Saudi and the Middle East's general context will likely push Riyadh to take initiatives to counter internal fundamentalist drives and to increase the new sovereign's charisma and prestige. In order to reach these goals, the active support from Washington is needed. Therefore, Turki's role will become indispensable to elaborate and promote policies which can harmonize Saudi and American interests -- especially when discrepancies appear.

The new king might also try to obtain a new commitment from Washington for an independent Palestinian state -- especially if the evolving Iraq situation will allow such a move, which is expected by so many in the Arab world. Such a request would be of great help domestically to keep Saudi fundamentalists under control, but it would also provide the U.S. an opportunity to gain new credibility as a mediator in the Muslim world.



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