In a blistering critique of Iran’s regional policy, Prince Turki Al Faisal told The National that its government is running on a “transnational sectarian ambition” and that the time is not conducive for Saudi-Iranian talks.
Saudi Arabia’s former chief of general intelligence described the economic and social changes under way in his country as “transformational” and “on the right track”.
He anticipated more progress in talks between Riyadh and Baghdad after Saudi Arabia strengthened economic and political links with a flurry of diplomacy this year.
On Iran, Prince Turki agreed with the Trump administration that parts of the nuclear deal should be renegotiated to guarantee its sustainability over the long term.
“When it comes to the nuclear deal, 15 years [duration of the deal signed in 2015] is a blink of an eye in a nation’s history,” Prince Turki said. “Countries in the region need assurances that things won’t return to be threatening after that period with Iran’s nuclear programme and enrichment levels.”
Prince Turki served for more than 20 years as head of the country’s intelligence agency, before standing down in 2001. He went on to serve as ambassador to the US before taking his current position as chairman of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.
Regionally, Prince Turki, who spoke to The National during a visit to Washington this week, saw no room for Saudi-Iran negotiations in the current charged environment.
“We have seen no improvement in Iran’s behaviour since the signing of the deal, their reach and recruiting of proxies has even gone beyond the Arab World, it’s driving a transnational sectarian ambition deep into Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said.
Prince Turki recalled the torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January 2016.
“It’s been almost two years since the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and we haven’t seen even an apology from Iran,” he said. “There is no sign at all for engagement or new room for negotiations.”
Prince Turki said Iran’s current behaviour “makes it hard to draw a line between doves and hawks in their government”.
Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif “has consistently attacked Saudi as a government and as an entity in opinion pieces. That’s a different level of attacks”.
Asked about the unprecedented anti-corruption sweep launched earlier this month with the arrest of 11 princes and more than 200 current and former officials, Prince Turki said: “When King Salman ascended to the throne [almost three years ago], he referred to corruption as a disease that needs to be tackled in order for the Saudi society to move forward.”
He refused to comment on possible settlements in the arrests, adding that “what is clear now is that the issue is in broad daylight and we are waiting to see what the next official steps and statements are.”
Prince Turki applauded “the historic changes in the Kingdom” granting women the right to drive as of June 2018, or to enter stadiums and constraining the guardianship rules.
He also praised the progress made with Vision 2030 – the vast economic reform plan spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to reduce the kingdom’s reliance on oil revenues.
“This is a transformation,” Prince Turki said. Economically “we are waiting to see what happens with Vision 2030 but one report issued this week referenced that the private sector’s GDP contribution has risen by 80 per cent, that means we are on the right track. “
Prince Turki dismissed talk that the changes in Saudi Arabia are an attempt by Prince Mohammed to consolidate power. “Prince Mohammed bin Salman consolidated power when he became Crown Prince in June. He didn’t come to power in a parachute and has full support of the king,” he said.
On Syria, the Saudi former diplomat reiterated his support for declaring a national ceasefire that encompasses all of the country to be followed by elections. He warned that unlike what happened in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, “bureaucracy in Syria should not be scrapped but there should be accountability and tribunals for crimes against humanity”.
On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia hosted members of the Syrian opposition to outline a unified vision ahead of UN peace talks in Geneva.
Prince Turki did not see an imminent breakthrough in Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition has been supporting government forces against Iran-backed rebels who seized the capital in 2014.
The kingdom has tightened access to the Houthi rebel-held territory after they fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh earlier this month. Aid agencies have warned that this is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in which thousands of Yemeni’s face starvation.
“It is a continuing debilitating civil war and upheaval, the UN must set up mechanism to implement the ceasefire, with monitoring and enforcement measures,” he said. While acknowledging multiple efforts to broker an agreement between the parties he said: “I don’t see one materialising anytime soon.”
One ray of hope is in Saudi relations with Iraq, Prince Turki said, referencing increased diplomatic and economic traffic between Baghdad and Riyadh.
“Iraq is an Arab and a Muslim country, and one that could contribute greatly to the stability and security of the region” he said. “Unlike Iran who wants Iraq weak and divided, we want a strong united Iraq.”