Prince Saud al-Faisal’s legacy lives on in Saudi foreign policy

In his decades-long service, Prince Saud al-Faisal represented the hallmarks of Riyadh’s wise and pragmatic leadership

Andrew Bowen

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In his decades-long service, Prince Saud al-Faisal represented the hallmarks of Riyadh’s wise and pragmatic leadership in foreign policymaking. He played a critical role in diplomatically navigating this turbulent and changing region and cultivated the kingdom’s relations with key global powers including the U.S., China, and India. Prince Saud importantly made a deep impact on the broader Muslim world through his work in helping lead the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

When Prince Saud stepped down as foreign minister this past April, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted, “I will continue to seek his counsel and value his friendship, forged over many hours spent discussing the challenges our nations face. Prince Saud has not just been the planet’s longest-serving foreign minister but also among the wisest. He worked with 12 of my predecessors as U.S. Secretaries of State, and was universally admired.” As a senior counsel to King Salman after retiring, his wisdom and experience continued to help guide the kingdom’s judicious navigation of regional and international security challenges including, Yemen, Iran, and Syria, and Riyadh’s engagement with the U.S.

A critical advocate for peace

Prince Saud assumed his role as foreign minister in 1975 during a period of great regional turbulence after the October War of 1973 and one that would shape his tenure as foreign minister. In a speech in front of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2014, he implored, “the Arab-Israeli conflict has overshadowed and dominated all other issues in the past six decades. No regional crisis has greater potential to affect other regional conflicts or world peace than this conflict.”

Prince Saud also served as a critical partner in countering violent extremism globally and stood with the U.S. after the September 11 terrorist attacks

Andrew Bowen

A critical advocate of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, the late foreign minister sought to secure a just and sustainable end to this crisis. “Unfortunately, all efforts up to the present have concentrated on partial and piecemeal steps that achieved little, or unilateral measures that have only resulted in worsening the suffering of the Palestinian people,” the prince stressed.

A strong partner

Prince Saud also served as a critical partner in countering violent extremism globally and stood with the U.S. after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In a 2002 interview on PBS’ “Frontline,” the foreign minister, stressed “we had problems with al-Qaeda before 9/11, as a matter of fact. They are pursued everywhere by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Emphasizing partnership to confront these challenges, which is salient today as the U.S. and Saudi Arabia confront ISIS, in a 2004 address to the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York, Prince Saud, noted, “In the struggle against these evils, we must be partners, who, sharing the same objectives, are still able to recognize and allow for diversity. We must not fight the wrong battle; our quarrel is not with each other. Let us join forces instead against the uncivilized, the criminal, and the unjust.” Even at times when the prince disagreed with President Bush’s decision to intervene in Iraq in 2003, the Foreign Minister sought to work with the U.S. after 2003 in securing Iraq’s future.

Strengthening Gulf unity to confront common challenges

Prince Saud was also a long-time advocate for unity amongst the Gulf States to address common security challenges, notably Iran and Yemen. In a 2004 address at IISS’s Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Prince Saud stressed, “All GCC countries need to realize that their individual and collective interests are best served by developing a clear and unified economic and security strategy and meeting the requirements of a joint and meaningful military capability as a priority,” he said. “This should in no way affect any special relationships that some or any of these countries have with others.”

A seasoned observer of Yemeni politics, the prince wisely observed that Yemen’s future and the GCC’s future are interlinked and advocated for the Kingdom’s southern neighbor to be integrated into the GCC’s security architecture. In his address to the Manama Dialogue in 2004, the foreign minister warned “the Gulf cannot be separated from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. The geographic and demographic size of Yemen should contribute positively to the maintenance of security and stability of the region. Yemen has developed substantial and meaningful relationships with GCC countries which would undoubtedly make it easy to attain full membership in the GCC.”

In his efforts to secure Yemen’s future, earlier this April, the Prince stressed, “We came to Yemen to help the legitimate authority, which is the only party that can speak in the language used by Imam Khamenei.” A keen observer of regional politics, Prince Saud noted, “Iran’s voice has only risen after problems appeared in Yemen and it began to intervene in Yemen’s decisions.”

A careful steward of Saudi foreign policy

Despite his reservations about Iran, Prince Saud sought engagement at times and most recently, in May of 2014, he extended an invitation for Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif to visit Riyadh. He stated, “Any time that sees fit to come, we are willing to receive him. Iran is a neighbor, we have relations with them and we will negotiate with them, we will talk with them.” However, Iran’s repeated refusal to engage in serious dialogue with the GCC and its disinterest in peace led the late foreign minister to conclude Iran’s leadership isn’t committed to such a relationship. In October 2014, the foreign minister warned, “In many of these conflicts, Iran is part of the problem and not part of the solution.” He further stressed, “If Iran wants to contribute to solving the problems in Syria, it should withdraw its troops” from Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.

Prince Saud’s careful stewardship of Saudi foreign policy for four decades deeply contributed both to the long-term security and prosperity of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but also, to the security and stability of the region. His positioning of Saudi Arabia as the leading broker in securing the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1970s further cemented the kingdom’s relationship with the U.S. and ensured that Washington needed Riyadh as a partner for peace and security in the region. His careful navigation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship during different periods, including the Gulf War of 1990, September 11, and the Iraq War of 2003, ensured that the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia endured.

With ISIS’ emergence in Iraq and Syria and Iran’s aggressive and expansive behavior in the region, his wise voice and experience will be missed as the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and the GCC navigate this increasingly turbulent time. His legacy and words are ones that leaders and policymakers can draw wisdom from now and in the future.


Andrew Bowen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, DC.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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