NEWSMAKER-Saudi veteran foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal – Reuters


RIYADH, April 29 (Reuters) – The world’s longest serving
foreign minister, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Saud al-Faisal, was
replaced on Wednesday after 40 years representing the
conservative Islamic kingdom, as Riyadh faces a period of
unprecedented regional crisis.

His departure comes as the world’s top oil exporter attempts
to navigate regional turmoil caused by the 2011 “Arab Spring”,
set against the backdrop of an overarching rivalry with Iran and
bumps in its alliance with Washington.

Although foreign policy in the monarchy is ultimately
determined by the king, Prince Saud has played an important role
in shaping the country’s response to the many crises affecting
the Middle East.

His successor, former Washington ambassador Adel al-Jubeir,
will inherit a heavy workload that has represented situation
normal for a Saudi foreign minister since Prince Saud was
appointed in October 1975.

His tenure included Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1978,
1982 and 2006, the Palestinian intifadas that erupted in 1987
and 2000, Iraq invading Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, and a
U.S.-led coalition’s occupation of Iraq in 2003.

Despite the tumult of that history, he leaves the Arab world
in a more parlous state than at any point in recent decades,
with civil war in Syria and Iraq, chaos in Yemen and Libya and
an uncertain political transition in Egypt.

Equally at home in Arab robes or tweed suit and tie and as
fluent in English as in Arabic, Prince Saud has proved adept at
cutting through flowery diplomatic niceties to deliver Saudi
Arabia’s message with pith and wit.

During a moment of tension in Saudi ties with its main ally
the United States in 2004, he described the relationship as “a
Muslim marriage” in which the kingdom could retain different
wives if it treated them all with fairness.

Even in recent years, when a chronic back complaint and
other maladies have made his hands appear shaky and his speech
slurred during public appearances, he retained a knack for
mental acuity.

Tentatively asked in early 2012 if he thought it was a good
idea to arm Syria’s rebels, he briskly retorted: “I think it’s
an excellent idea.”

Prince Saud, a son of King Faisal, was born in 1940 in the
mountain city of Taif near Mecca where, in 1989, he helped Saudi
Arabia negotiate the agreement that ended Lebanon’s 15-year
civil war.

A degree at Princeton in the 1960s was followed by years at
the Petroleum Ministry, where he was taken under the wing of his
father’s political alter ego, the canny and charismatic oil
minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani.

His career as a diplomat began with trauma: the new King
Khaled named him as foreign minister because of the
assassination of Prince Saud’s father Faisal, who had retained
the foreign affairs portfolio after being made king in 1962.

For all his talents as a diplomat, however, Prince Saud has
failed to build the kingdom’s foreign ministry into a body with
great institutional depth.

Diplomats in Riyadh have said Saudi foreign policy is like a
searchlight: capable of intense focus only on the one area where
the king and Prince Saud were most interested, but unable to
follow up when attention shifted elsewhere.

COMPLICATED HISTORY

When he was appointed in March 1975, the region was
dominated by Cold War rivalries and secular, pan-Arab
nationalism seemed to carry the promise of the future.

Egypt and Israel had not yet made peace, Yasser Arafat led
the Palestine Liberation Organisation from shell-pocked refugee
camps in Lebanon, Iran’s shah ruled from his Peacock Throne and,
in Iraq, a young Saddam Hussein was plotting his path to power.

Riyadh’s relationship with Saddam, which went from wary
support during the Iran-Iraq war to fierce enmity after the
invasion of Kuwait, dominated long periods of Saudi foreign
policy during Prince Saud’s tenure.

However, despite that complicated history, Prince Saud
publicly argued against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003,
presciently fearing a chaotic aftermath that could destabilise
the region.

“If change of regime comes with the destruction of Iraq,
then you are solving one problem and creating five more
problems,” he said in a British television interview.

In a sprawling ruling clan prone to clique-building, Prince
Saud proved one of the closest allies of the late King Abdullah.

When Abdullah, then crown prince, embarked on his trademark
set of economic reforms in 2000, it was Prince Saud, drawing on
his oil ministry experience, who worked with him to offer
foreign energy firms access to Saudi gas fields.

Two years later, he pushed Abdullah’s biggest foreign policy
initiative, an Arab plan for peace with Israel in return for a
withdrawal from all occupied land and a resolution of the
refugee problem, with similar gusto.

“All the neighbourhood, if you will, will be at peace with
Israel, will recognise their right to exist. If this doesn’t
provide security of Israel, I assure you the muzzle of a gun is
not going to provide that security,” he said at the time.

Israel never agreed to the plan and Prince Saud has
frequently spoken of the failure to help create a Palestinian
state as the biggest disappointment of his career.

(Editing by Alex Richardson)