World has 'enough' oil
Oil prices are skyrocketing. Iran appears determined to develop its nuclear program, if not weapons. The Iraq war blazes on with no end in sight. Israelis and Palestinians haven't had meaningful peace talks in years. In the middle of this chaos sits Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer. Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, discussed these and other issues last week with USA TODAY editors and reporters. His comments were edited for length and clarity.
QUESTION: With oil prices reaching record highs, what is your sense of today's supply and demand?
PRINCE TURKI AL-FAISAL: Answer: There are enough supplies today to meet world demand. In fact, there is an excess supply. For the last two or three years, we've been trying to sell some of our oil on the market, without any customers. When OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) met a couple weeks ago, they said that not only were supplies available, but also all inventories in all countries are at their highest levels ever. These factors should be bringing down the price of oil. But the issue of security, and the political dimension -- not just in our part of the world, but in places like Nigeria, and your differences with Venezuela -- add $15 to $20 to the price of a barrel. The political dimension, really, has overtaken the economic and business dimensions.
QUESTION: Where would Saudi Arabia like to see the price of oil?
PRINCE TURKI: Our minister of oil said two months ago that a fair price would be between $40 and $45 per barrel. (Today prices are roughly $70 a barrel). Whether that has changed, I don't know. But that range is an equitable price for producers and consumers.
QUESTION: What would be the significance of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and how far should the UN and US go in preventing that?
PRINCE TURKI: The Middle East should be free of weapons of mass destruction, no exceptions. I think the United Nations process is probably the most logical way that this issue can be treated.
QUESTION: If diplomatic efforts were to fail, should force be used to prevent Iran from acquiring weapons?
PRINCE TURKI: We are against the use of force in any conflict. The effects would be detrimental not just to us but to the whole area. King Abdullah has publicly stated that war destroys, and what our region needs is to be built up.
QUESTION: Many Americans see Saudi Arabia as a country that suppresses women's rights. What would you say to them?
PRINCE TURKI: I would say that Saudi Arabia started from a very low point in its attitude toward social issues. We came from a society that was more like 17th- or 18th-century practices than 20th- or 21st-century practices. But in the past 70 years, we've moved forward. More women graduate from universities than men. More women are joining the workforce. If you'd looked at Saudi Arabia 25 years ago, a household would be perhaps composed of a father, mother and six or seven kids. The father would have felt that it would be shameful to allow his wife or any female family member to seek a job. Today, the most prized woman is a woman with a job. It's that kind of evolutionary process that we're going through.
QUESTION: So, does that then lead to women participating in elections, too?
PRINCE TURKI: Absolutely. The next elections are going to be in three years, for municipal elections. And women will participate fully in those elections, and not just as voters, but as candidates if they want.
QUESTION: There seems to be warming ties between Saudi Arabia and China. How would you characterize this relationship?
PRINCE TURKI: It's a confluence of many interests. When we established relations with them, it was on a footing of one to one. They don't throw their weight around. They're very careful in what they engage in, and they've been supporters of the Arab position, for example, in terms of the peace process in the Middle East -- Palestinian rights and so on. Of course, they also buy a lot of oil from us, but it is not just an issue of oil. There is a sense of empathy between the two countries.
QUESTION: Is China a better friend to Saudi Arabia than the United States is?
PRINCE TURKI: Not necessarily a better friend, but a less complicated friend. I don't think, nor does anybody in Saudi Arabia think, that China is a counterweight to the United States. But your country is courting China because you obviously think that it is important to court China. We're simply following your lead.
QUESTION: Looking realistically at the situation in Iraq, do you think civil war or partition can be avoided? Is there a way to bring a successful solution?
PRINCE TURKI: I think it can. This is the challenge that faces this government, and hence the need for them to think more as Iraqis and less as Shiites, Sunnis or Kurds. I don't think it's useful or important to say whether there is civil war or sectarian conflict or whatever you want to call it, but killing is taking place. The only way they can be stopped is by a strong central government that can impose its authority on the society and show that it is capable of meeting challenges.
QUESTION: Sen. Joseph Biden, the ranking Democratic member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has called for partitioning Iraq. Your thoughts on this?
PRINCE TURKI: That's an awful idea because it creates more problems than it solves. Dealing with one Iraq is enough of a problem. Imagine dealing with three Iraqs. How do you partition? To divide Iraq into territorial entities would create a mess. And neighbors would try to interfere with that process. All the contiguous countries to Iraq, without exception, want a unified Iraq.
QUESTION: More broadly, hasn't the terrorist problem gotten worse since the Iraq war began?
PRINCE TURKI: If you look at the literature coming out of the terrorist organizations, Iraq figures prominently among them. Look at (Osama) bin Laden's sermons, and Ayman al-Zawahiri's preachings, and (Abu Musab) al-Zarqawi's participation. All of these people constantly refer to Iraq as an issue to be taken up with. We've interrogated some of the Saudis who have come back from Iraq, and most of them were going, not to join al-Qaeda, but to fight the invader. And, generally what happens is they get sucked into the al-Qaeda operations. And then the brainwashing takes place.
QUESTION: The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been stalled, and the United States has said it will not deal with Hamas. Is this a wise course?
PRINCE TURKI: Both countries have shown that the people want a two-state solution. Since the recent elections, Palestinians urged the new government to talk with the Israelis, and the Israeli people urged the new government to talk with Hamas. So you've got an expression of public will to move the peace process forward. How do you translate that into political action? Obviously, Hamas on one side and (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert and his coalition on the other have baggage and perhaps even political impediments to adhering to the will of their people. This is where the United States should come in and be the honest broker that it has always promised to be. Something has to be done.
QUESTION: What's the best way for the United States to resolve the Hamas dilemma?
PRINCE TURKI: When Israel signed the Oslo agreements with the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in 1993, in Israel's eyes, the PLO was then a terrorist organization. The PLO constitution and manifesto included the same phrases that exist in Hamas' manifesto and constitution about driving out the Zionist enemy and liberating all of Palestine, etc. It wasn't until 1997 that the PLO removed those phrases. Hence came the demand of the Israelis on their government to talk to Hamas.
QUESTION: How was the outcry over the Dubai ports deal viewed in Saudi Arabia and in the rest of the Middle East?
PRINCE TURKI: Everybody looked upon it in the Middle East as another example of American unfairness. The issue of Palestine was always the ranking issue for Arabs in general as an issue of double standards, and when Dubai ports came along, it just seemed to confirm that. In my talks with American officials and non-official experts on your politics, I have been told that this is more an issue of grandstanding and demagoguery during your election season. But it left a bitter taste.
QUESTION: Is there anything else the United States could be doing to promote its image in the Middle East?
PRINCE TURKI: We would like to see American students come to our universities. In as much as you have your own stereotypical images of Saudi Arabia, Saudis have stereotypical images of you. Personal contact can break down these stereotypes. I tell our students everywhere I go that they are the real ambassadors. We (in government) are bound by diplomacy and officialdom and sort of at arms length from engagement with American society. Students are the ones who are going to fully engage in that process. I tell them I hope that they represent Saudi Arabia in the best manner.