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The bridge builder: Prince Saud al-Faisal’s major diplomatic milestones

Published: Updated:

With the passing of Prince Saud Al-Faisal, 75, Saudi Arabia lost its iconic foreign minister who had for over 40 years helped shape the Kingdom’s foreign policy while maintaining his personal commitment to a robust U.S.-Saudi strategic alliance. While his friendship with the United States was fostered during his time at Princeton University, from where he graduate with a degree in economics in 1965, the fourth son of Saudi Arabia’s third king, Faisal, was not only a tireless champion of Palestinian independence and justice, but also became an avid supporter of Arab-Israeli peace by calling on the Arab states and Israel to accept the Arab Peace Initiative. Yet, Prince Saud was not afraid of publicly criticizing U.S. Middle East policy, including his blunt warning against the Bush-administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, stressing that a chaotic aftermath would ensue with wide-ranging consequences for regional stability. He was right.

Prince Saud also possessed remarkable clarity when it came to understanding the wide-ranging implications the Islamic Revolution of 1979 would have on Iran’s quest for regional hegemony and its desired control over the Persian Gulf. By recognizing Iran’s competing foreign policy priorities fueled by a revolutionary zeal to support Shiite groups across the region, the legendary foreign minister sought to strengthen regional deterrence by unifying the Arab Gulf monarchies under the Gulf Cooperation Council, which was formed in 1981 as a direct response to the Islamic Revolution and regional instability prompted by the eruption of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980.

The strength of today’s Gulf Cooperation Council, comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia, as a decisive actor in a region marred by chaos and instability would arguably not have been possibly without the Prince’s relentless push for Gulf Arab unity from the onset of its establishment.

Navigating Regional Crises

In addition to having sheppard the Kingdom’s foreign policy throughout successive regional crises, ranging from the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1987) through Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Prince Saud’s skillful mastery of diplomacy and impressive understanding of U.S. politics enabled him to successfully preserve the U.S.-Saudi strategic alliance during the difficult aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He also recognized that al-Qaeda and its perverse interpretation of Islam was not only a threat to the West, as witnessed by its gruesome attacks on New York, Washington, London and Madrid, but also to the Kingdom itself.

Detailing Prince Saud’s clarity over the dangers Osama bin Laden presented to the West and to the Kingdom’s international reputation, former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh Robert Jordan explained in a 2005 interview with PBS Frontline that while a number of Saudi leaders appeared to initially have been in disbelief over Saudi citizens having been the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, “I think it's also important to recognize that there were, at the same time, a number of senior Saudi leaders who did fully accept bin Laden's involvement and Saudi involvement in the plot -- Prince Saud, the foreign minister, for example.”

Ambassador Jordan, who had arrived in Riyadh before 9/11, also explained why it was difficult for many Saudis to understand that some of their citizens had been behind the attacks in question, noting, “I think it says a lot about the society. It says that Saudis find it hard to believe that their sons, members of their tribes, could have done something like this, just as it would be hard for me to imagine one of my three sons committing such a horrific act.”

Bridge Builder, Political Reformer

As Saudi Arabia’s chief diplomat, Prince Saud not only oversaw deepening U.S.-Saudi anti-terrorism cooperation following the 9/11 attacks, but he was also a staunch defender of peaceful coexistence between Islam and the West. “It must be repeated at this point that there is no true religion which advocates the use of terrorism. The great religions of the world promote noble and peaceful values, and we should not hold the vast majority of true believers responsible for the deviant behavior of a very small minority in any religion,” Prince Saud told the U.N. General Assembly in an impassioned address. As a bridge builder, the Saudi top diplomat not only sought to put emphasis on shared values between Islam and Christianity, but also called for greater political reforms within the Arab world. “We in Saudi Arabia firmly believe that modernization and comprehensive political, economic and social reforms are badly needed in our part of the world. We are fully aware that partial, minor and isolated reforms or cosmetic changes are not sufficient in this regard,” he told delegates gathered for the Forum of the Future in December 2004 at Rabat, Morocco.

Having worked with 12 U.S. secretaries of state over his tenure as foreign minister, President Obama lauded Prince Saud’s contribution to the U.S.-Saudi strategic alliance by saying that generations of American leaders and diplomats had benefited from his “thoughtful perspective, charisma and poise, and diplomatic skill.”

The passing of Prince Saud formally marks the beginning of a new generational era in Saudi politics, although his legacy in fighting terrorism will live on in the Kingdom’s battle against ISIS and militant ideologies present today.

Still, on the U.S.-Saudi relations front, continuity is expected: By selecting the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al Jubeir, as Prince Saud’s replacement, King Salman has demonstrated his commitment to deepening the U.S.-Saudi strategic alliance by appointing an official who understands Washington and how to navigate the many complexities of American politics.

Sigurd Neubauer is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington