As recent events have deepened uncertainty in the Gulf, zenith asks former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal for his thoughts on the death of Qassem Suleimani, Saudi support for Iraq and a possible rapprochement between the kingdom and Iran.
Prince Turki al-Faisal is currently the chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, which is a non-for-profit research institution funded by the King Faisal Foundation. He has previously served as the director of General Intelligence Presidency, Saudi Arabia’s primary intelligence agency, between 1979 and 2001. He has also been the country’s ambassador to the UK and USA. He is the youngest son of the former king of Saudi Arabia, Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
zenith: According to the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Qassem Suleimani was carrying a letter when he was killed in Iraq earlier this month in which Iran proposed a path towards de-escalation with Saudi Arabia. Is there any truth to this?
Turki al-Faisal: What I heard from someone who was in Iraq recently and who spoke to some very senior Iraqi officials, particularly those who are not so beholden to Iran, is that Suleimani came to Baghdad to engineer some sort of coup against the Iraqi president, Barham Salih. And also, to galvanise public demonstrations and to facilitate a potential attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. I’m more inclined to believe this story rather than the one you mentioned. Suleimani never looked upon Saudi Arabia as a potential friend of Iran. He was one of the hardliners in Iran, who promoted the Houthis in Yemen and al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, while recruiting the militias from Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in Syria. So, I would very much doubt that he would be Khamenei’s emissary to the Kingdom.
What would be required for the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran to improve?
Iran needs to stop arming the Houthis and providing them with military advisers. They’re the ones who actually operate the drones and the anti-ballistic missiles which are then lobbed at Saudi Arabia. That’s one step that they could take to show their goodwill. But, so far they haven’t taken it, despite what Iranian President Rouhani or his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have said. Our crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, gave an interview a few months ago to Bloomberg in which he was asked about Yemen. He said if the Iranians would stop supplying the Houthis with the wherewithal, maybe we can reach a solution in Yemen. The crown prince’s statement was, however, followed by the attack on the Aramco facilities in the eastern province in September 2019.
Moqtada al-Sadr, the influential Iraqi Shia cleric who heads the Sadrist Movement, had positive talks with the crown prince when he visited Saudi Arabia in 2017. How does Riyadh perceive his current shift back to the Iranian-led ‘axis of resistance’?
I’m not in government, so I’m not privy to what Moqtada al-Sadr said or did not say to the crown prince. What I can say is that he has never hesitated to change opinion. In the initial stages of the American occupation, he actually led the anti-American campaign in Basra, until he disappeared in Iran. When he reappeared, he engaged with us and tried to show a more even-handed attitude towards the Arab world because he claimed he was of Arab descent. I’m not the one to be able to tell you whether he is or not.
How is Saudi Arabia preparing for a potential withdrawal of US forces from Iraq?
We’ve been very much engaged with many Iraqi political groups and we tell them all that we’re there for Iraq. We’re not there for just one party. In terms of our own security, it’s best for us to make ourselves available to all Iraqi political factions as someone they can be friends with. But whether parties like al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which are now represented in the Iraqi parliament, will be open to engaging with Saudi Arabia, I doubt that very much. It will, therefore, be a challenging manoeuvre for Saudi officials. But I’m not a Saudi official, so I don't have to worry about that.
Who could be a viable mediator to kick-start a dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
Our foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, has answered that already at Davos. He said we don’t need interlocutors or mediators. We’ll deal with Iran one-to-one. He said it’s up them, so the ball is in Iran’s court.
Inna Rudolf is a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College, London. Her current research focuses on popular mobilisation tactics, security sector reform and Islamist non-state actors in Iraq. She interviewed Prince Turki al-Faisal on the side-lines of the conference ‘Non-State Actors and the Changing Nature of Conflict’, held in London on 27-28 January 2020.