Prince Saud al-Faisal
Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi Who Was Washington’s Wisest Ally
The kingdom has lost its steadiest diplomat—and its most clever problem-solver.
Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal bin Abd Al Aziz Al Saud, who died early Friday at age 75, was the kingdom’s foreign minister for 40 years. He was a key player in every Middle East crisis for those years and, through war and peace, was a dignified, calm voice advocating his country’s interests. His touch will be missed.
Prince Saud was the son of King Faisal who presided over a critical transition in the 1960s and ’70s. The kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saud, died in 1953 and left the throne to a son who was not up to the job. The country’s finances were wasted and a coup like those that had driven royals out of Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen seemed imminent. Over several years, Faisal outmaneuvered that brother, secured the backing of the Wahhabi clerics and the rest of the family, and took power in 1964.
King Faisal ruled over a decade that saw a huge rise in oil prices and the transformation of Saudi Arabia from a poor desert outback to a rich, modern—but deeply conservative—monarchy with global influence. He sent his son Saud al-Faisal to Princeton for his education and groomed him to be a diplomat. The king had served as Ibn Saud’s foreign emissary from the age of 12, traveling in 1919 to Europe to represent the kingdom. In 1943, he visited FDR in Washington and began the American alliance with Saudi Arabia.
Prince Saud became foreign minister in 1975, after his father was assassinated for bringing television into the country, a move that alienated religious fanatics. By then, he was fluent in seven languages and as at home in Arabia as was in the West. He had a manner that commanded attention—and a respect for others that facilitated communication.
I knew Saud al-Faisal for many years. In the dangerous days after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, he helped President George H.W. Bush put together the coalition that defended Saudi Arabia and liberated Kuwait. He pressed tirelessly for the coalition to use its victory to address the Arab-Israeli conflict after 1991.
He was passionate about resolving the Palestinian conflict and his great regret was not succeeding. He knew well the failings of the Palestinian leadership, especially Yassir Arafat, but was an articulate advocate of their cause. Most of all he argued that the perpetuation of the Palestinian problem benefited the forces of extremism and terror in the region. In that he was right.
In the Saudi world, the king, as absolute monarch, makes policy. Prince Saud served four kings and was always careful to deliver what they promised. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease for years and an assortment of other ailments that made his life of constant travel very difficult.
He dealt with seven presidents, from Ford to Obama, and even more secretaries of state. He invited them to his home to meet his wife and children. I recall his daughters trying to explain how Saudi women loved their country to skeptical Americans. One of his sisters married Prince Bandar bin Sultan, for many years the kingdom’s ambassador in Washington and Prince Saud’s partner in diplomacy.
The al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shook the very foundations of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. The Saudis had been slow to see the danger from al Qaeda to America and even slower to recognize the menace inside the kingdom. Prince Saud believed the invasion of Iraq after 9/11 was a profound mistake that would only make things worse. In that, he was right as well.
Today, the kingdom is in the midst of its own war, in Yemen, which has become a dangerous stalemate. The Saudi blockade is creating a humanitarian catastrophe, with some 20 million Yemenis at risk amid acute shortages of food and water. The situation cries out for smart diplomacy and clever policies. His Royal Highness’s hand will be missed.