In recent speeches, President Bush has emphasized his goal of spreading democracy around the world, specifically mentioning the need for change in Saudi Arabia. Prince Saud Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister for the past 30 years, sat down last week in London for an interview with Newsweek-Washington Post's Lally Weymouth about the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the volatile situation in the Middle East. Saud's own relationship with the United States goes back to the early 1960s, when he graduated from Princeton with an economics degree. He said during the lengthy interview that the kingdom is moving toward reform, especially with regard to women, but that any effort must be "gradual." He described the Saudi-U.S. relationship as almost back to where it was before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Do you agree that women should take a more active part in your society?
I agree wholeheartedly. As a matter of fact, I want to contribute.
Things must happen in a gradual way. But I am proud that the foreign ministry is doing its part in having women play the role they should play. For the first time, we are going to have women in the Foreign Ministry this year.
Should women be able to vote in the next [round of] municipal elections [over the next few months]?
Even the Commissioner of Elections has said that he is going to propose that they do vote. So I am assuming that they will vote in the next election and that is going to be good for the election because I think women are more sensible voters than men.
How will the recent death of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri [killed in a Feb. 14 bomb attack] affect the region?
In the Arab world, people are sick and tired of tragedies like this happening. And they are expressing their ire and anger. I think that the Syrians and the Lebanese would be wise to finish their investigation. And I heard that they told the Secretary General of the Arab League that they would accept an investigator from the United Nations. That would be a good first step; it may not be enough because everybody is looking for a quick response and a transparent search for the guilty one.
Doesn't it look like the Syrians had Hariri killed?
The implication is that the prime minister was killed, that there are Syrian troops in Lebanon and there is a certain responsibility not only for the Lebanese government but for the Syrians to explain how this happened . . . . The people there are boiling -- they are unwilling to accept anything but the truth.
Do the Lebanese people want the Syrian troops out of their country?
Well, the Syrians said they want to get out according to the Taif Agreement [negotiated in 1989]. If that is so, this is exactly what [Lebanon's] opposition wants.
What would you like to see them do?
To go out according to the Taif Agreement.
What does the presumed assassination of Hariri say about the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad? Must it go?
Syria is an independent country, and it is up to the Syrians how they deal with their government. I know people in the Middle East are sick of having their officials killed and assassinated. . . . The Lebanese are afraid to their core that the civil war will return.
Shifting to Iraq, how do you feel about the outcome of the election and how will a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq affect your country?
I don't think there is any reason to prefer a majority of one sect or another as long as the constitution ensures the territorial integrity and unity of Iraq. Democracy is not the right of the majority alone. It is also the protection of the rights of the minority.
Is the situation likely to descend into civil war?
People said before that elections couldn't happen, and they happened. People think a national consensus cannot be formed, but they may be proved wrong.
What would you like to see the Americans do in Iraq -- leave or set a timeline to leave?
I would like to see Iraq united territorially and its people united. Whatever help they need -- whether from the United States or elsewhere -- is up to the Iraqis. They say they need the U.S. forces to stay until they stabilize the country and elections are held and a permanent government is established.
Do you believe the U.S. can defeat al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency?
I don't know. Al Qaeda is trying to do everything it can to survive the assault that is being waged on it and to disrupt any movement toward peace in the Middle East -- whether in Iraq or in Palestine. They use existing suffering to expand their recruitment and backing.
So they use the Palestinian issue?
They use every issue of suffering, injustice and double standard to their advantage.
How do you see the Palestinian-Israeli situation? How are your contacts with Palestinian President Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]?
We have contacts with Abu Mazen constantly. His foreign minister was just in Saudi Arabia and before that, Abu Mazen was in Saudi Arabia. We see the contact that has been made between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and we are hopeful. If the Israelis withdraw from Gaza and the four settlements and allow the Palestinians to be secure from assassination and to build their security forces, the Palestinians can do what they committed to do in terms of security.
The Qataris and Omanis are talking about establishing official trade contacts with Israel. Would Saudi Arabia contemplate this?
We never had this. We have a proposal for total peace in the Middle East and that is the condition.
What is the condition under which Saudi Arabia would establish some kind of relations with Israel?
If there is total peace and every Arab country signs the peace treaty that was proposed [by Crown Prince Abdullah] and accepted by the Beirut conference [in 2002]. It said total peace for total withdrawal to the '67 borders. . . . We are pleased to see [British] Prime Minister [Tony] Blair urging a continuation of the peace process and a return to the road map. We think that if you join the road map with the Arab proposal, you have a good plan.
The U.S. has given additional money to the Palestinian Authority. Will Saudi Arabia do the same?
We are their largest contributor and will continue to be so.
How do you assess the U.S.-Saudi relationship and what is your view of President Bush's emphasis on the need for reform?
The relationship is going well. The president also indicated that reform has to come from inside the countries of the region and must fulfill the requirements of the people. He expressed the wish that this would happen quickly in the Middle East, and we expressed the wish that the Palestinian question be quickly solved. So I hope both our wishes will come true.
But there have been strains in the relationship since Sept. 11, isn't that so?
Magazines, newspapers and television stations have described the relations as those of enmity. This is not true. The relationship with the government of the United States is healthy. It has become more healthy recently. Compared to the warmth that existed before Sept. 11, we are reaching gradually the level of comfort and warmth we enjoyed before. The U.S. government knows what we have done about terrorism, and they know that we are reforming. True, it is according to our capacity and our timetable. But there is no question that the government is serious about reforms and is working so the reforms will happen without breaking the social fabric of the country.
There has been a lot of talk about the relationship between the Wahabi religious extremists in your country and terrorism. How do you answer this?
Saudi Arabia is a religious country with a strong faith. We also have our share of extremists, but they are a minority. The mistake that happens in newspapers is that there is an intended confusion by so-called experts who are trying to claim that the extremists are the society of Saudi Arabia. The newspapers [claim] every one of the religious people who express extreme opinions -- saying there should be jihad -- represent Saudi Arabia, which they don't.
So you don't believe that Saudi Arabia bred and paid for terrorists who ultimately struck the kingdom in May 2003?
We would have to be crazy to do that.
But didn't it all start when Saudi Arabia and the U.S. backed the mujaheddin in Afghanistan in the fight against the Soviets?
Well, these people went to Afghanistan but not on our urging alone -- the U.S. urged them to go. Our mistake was not to have taken care of them when they came back from Afghanistan.
Is Saudi Arabia government winning the battle against al Qaeda in the kingdom?
I think we are winning the battle for the safety of our people. But the battle is not in Saudi Arabia alone. It is like a virus which spreads and unless it is faced globally, it will continue to threaten us.
Do you share the concern of the Bush administration about a nuclear Iran?
Iran is always mentioned but no one mentions Israel, which has [nuclear] weapons already. We wish the international community would enforce the movement to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.
Do you see the Iranian weapon as a counterweight to the Israeli weapon?
You can't say you want everyone to have human rights and allow what is happening in Palestine to happen. In the same breath, you can't say that Iran can't produce weapons of mass destruction and [ignore] what is happening in Israel.
What would Saudi Arabia's stance be if Iran gets a nuclear weapon?
We would be against it, and we have warned the Iranians that this is a dangerous road they are following.
If Iran goes nuclear, would Saudi Arabia build its own nuclear weapons?
No, we will not. We do not believe that it gives any country security to build nuclear weapons.