I can hardly believe that it has already been a year since I was invited to the Janadriyah festival in Saudi Arabia for the first time. Needless to say, the whole world has changed since then. This applies even more so to the Middle East. But perhaps the greatest change took place in Saudi Arabia itself.
At the global level, this was the year of Donald Trump who generated a new wave of political and economic ultra-nationalism that was echoed in European elections and that made China the torchbearer of globalisation. In our region, it was the year of the defeat of the Islamic State group (IS) and the end of the era of its “caliphate”. As the remnants of IS were swept from Iraq, Syria succumbed to new pressures in which Turkey is playing an increasing military role.
As for Saudi Arabia, when I arrived in Riyadh last year, we saw the first signs of the widely spoken of Saudi “Vision 2030”. This year, when I arrived, the effects of the “vision” were already visible. Not only had the organisational leadership of the Janadriyah festival changed, so too had the leadership’s approach and policies.
In short, Saudi Arabia has entered the 21st century at full thrust. If the festival opened with the traditional camel race, the first evening featured a performance of the operetta Imams and Kings, an epic account of the historical evolution of the Saudi Kingdom, excellently staged, directed and performed to the highest musical and artistic standards.
I also played a different role in this year’s festival. Last year, I took part in seminars and panel discussions on Egyptian-Saudi relations and Arab-US relations in the time of Trump. This year, I took part in the ceremony in which His Royal Highness Prince Saud Al-Faisal was posthumously awarded the Order of Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, First Class. I did not have the fortune to have personally known one of the most important diplomatic figures in the Arab world. However, his works and influence were widely spoken of and I do have the honour to know His Excellency Al-Maliki Turki Al-Faisal who, himself, stands as a landmark in the world of politics and diplomacy and who was an important influence in shaping the Saudi approach to government at home and the conduct of foreign policy abroad.
I had the honour to pay tribute to Prince Saud Al-Faisal together with Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Bahrain Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled Al-Khalifa and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir. These three men personally knew and worked together with that great prince. They, therefore, had a wealth of experience and situations they could draw on to describe the outstanding traits of the architect of Saudi foreign policy for 40 years.
Saud Al-Faisal displayed an outstanding aptitude for adjusting to international political changes, during the Cold War, then in the time of the pre-eminence of US might, and then in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 when the US declared the war on terror. He also formulated firm principled positions that served Saudi interests during the many controversies and crises that swept the Arab region during the so-called Arab Spring. Bringing to bear considerable wisdom and prudence, Saud Al-Faisal succeeded in fusing these two qualities — his ability to accommodate to change and his success in formulating positions that promote Saudi interests — into a new mode for the conduct of Saudi foreign policy and, in the process, he generated an institutional transformation in Saudi decision-making processes in the realm of foreign affairs.
There are three facets to Saud Al-Faisal’s profoundly intelligent, extensively erudite, generous yet firm and, above all, eminently sagacious personality: the prince, the diplomat and the politician. These three facets merged in this singular man. Prince Saud Al-Faisal was a member of the unified royal House of Saud and a bearer of the traditions of King Faisal as a long serving senior diplomat for many years, during which he served as foreign minister, which enabled him to acquire considerable wisdom in his practical life. The Saudi Arabian Kingdom is the cornerstone of the Arab concept which was transmitted to all other countries that adopted the Arabic language. In other words, “Arabism” is ultimately an authentic Saudi creation by dint of history and geography.
The Saudi traditions that emanated from the Arabian Peninsula and its particular political geography, the dynastic traditions that evolved following the establishment of the Saudi state by King Abdel-Aziz, the economic geography that came with the discovery of oil and the political geography shaped by the concept of authentic Arabism all combined to enable the kingdom to function and to work for the dissemination of stability in a conflict-ridden world and a region in turmoil. The prince did not build on a void. He drew on solid roots that reached deeply into the soil of the kingdom and that extended across the length and breadth of the Arab and Islamic worlds. The prince was well-prepared for those complex and multifaceted relations, armed as he was with seven languages. But he also loved nature, the great outdoors, hunting and safari excursions.
Saud Al-Faisal’s biographer, Fahd bin Hassan Dammas wrote: “He is sedate and dignified, proficient in more than one language. He is extensively knowledgeable in regional and international political affairs and in history and its men and lessons. He boasts accumulated expertise in the work of diplomacy over period of four decades that brought events and changes that reshaped the geopolitical world map as drawn by World War II. He is a man at the moment of action who possesses the engineering to handle diverse crises and manage Saudi Arabia’s multifarious relations.”
Former Arab League secretary general and former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa said: “Arab diplomacy suffered a great loss with the death of former Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal.” He described Faisal as “the founder of a rationalist diplomatic school and the author of powerful and solid ideas. He was strong when the situation needed strength, humane when the situation required humanitarianism, diplomatic when the situation required diplomacy and an expert when the situation required expertise… He contributed much to Arab and Saudi diplomacy. He was always a voice of reason and equanimity. And this is not to mention is other personal and humanitarian qualities.”
Moussa added: “Saud Al-Faisal was one of the finest men I have met in my professional career throughout the time I served in the field of Arab and Egyptian diplomacy.”
Perhaps Moussa’s description of Saud Al-Faisal as the “soft diplomatic face” of the kingdom as well as its “driving force” perhaps best encapsulates the late prince.
Under Prince Saud Al-Faisal’s helm, Saudi diplomacy came to operate along three trajectories, the first being the Gulf region. This led to the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the development of linkages among its six members in order to safeguard them from detrimental trends, whether of a revolutionary orientation in the Iraqi manner or of a reactionary bent in the Iranian manner. The second operated at the level of Arab solidarity. Through its bilateral relations with other Arab states, it sought to promote stability in the Arab region, strengthen the Arabs’ capacity to manage central issues, such as the Palestinian cause, and enhance its capacity to contend with sudden changes affecting the Arab countries, to resist communism and to wisely and prudently handle major world powers from the EU to the US. The third trajectory was at the Saudi governmental level and sought to institutionalise the country’s diplomatic work and foreign policy. Prince Saud Al-Faisal’s accomplishments along all these trajectories were numerous and I attempted to enumerate them in the recent Janadriyah festival. May God rest his soul and help the Arab nations overcome the loss of this great man.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly