April 24, 2009

Saudi prince hopes Obama will end region's conflicts

In his April 23 talk on "What We Expect From America: A Saudi Perspective," Prince Turki Al-Faisal traced the more than 80-year relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which has changed from close to fraught and back again. The kingdom's former ambassador to the United States spoke to a full audience in Statler Auditorium as part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.

In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt befriended King Abdul Aziz, founder of the kingdom. By the first term of President George W. Bush, Saudi Arabia felt shut out, ignored and angry. The election of President Barack Obama has raised expectations in the Middle East for peace. Turki hopes Obama will "put an end vision to this conflict that has bedeviled not just the area but the rest of the world."

In August 2001, then-Crown Prince Abdullah sent President George W. Bush a letter saying Bush had "turned his back to peacemaking in the Middle East and almost abandoned everything Mr. Clinton had almost succeeded in bringing about," Turki said. This "acted as a wake up call" and led to a statement on which Arab leaders were consulted for a two-state solution for Palestine.

Bush was scheduled to deliver a speech with that language to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 12, 2001, Turki said. In the attacks of Sept. 11 (a "horrific and criminal act"), 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudi, ushering in a period of "hostility, if not downright enmity." But "the two governments kept cool heads."

American companies began to drill for oil in Saudi Arabia during the second World War. In 1945 Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz. Turki said the kingdom wanted technical, economic and political support, and the king "agreed with FDR that production of oil in the kingdom would be expanded and an American air base would be established on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia after the Second World War."

He continued, "Your country helped us, in our developing days, in establishing not only educational institutions and accepting Saudi students to come to your country, but also in the technical support, military and otherwise."

Later, Roosevelt asked the king to support a program to transport Jewish Holocaust survivors to Palestine. Turki said, "The king turned to the president and said, 'If the Jews have been persecuted by the Nazis, why should the Arabs pay the price for that?' This was the first disagreement between the two ... [and it] remains a point of contention."

Turki said Roosevelt promised not to take action on Jewish immigration to Palestine without consulting Arab leaders. Later, "Harry Truman did not feel obliged to fulfill President Roosevelt's promise." After the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, "There was much recrimination and bitterness between our two countries," Turki said.

After the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the United States based troops in the kingdom. "Saudis will remain forever grateful to your country for sending your kids to stand shoulder to shoulder with our soldiers when the need arose for us to defend ourselves," Turki said.

Obama is right on Afghanistan, Turki believes, but he warned that America ought not to linger there. "Nobody, throughout history, has ever succeeded in [conquering Afghanistan]," Turki said. "Go back to Alexandrian times and more recently to Soviet times. Afghanistan has always been the deathbed of invading armies."