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The Washington Post reports that Saudi ambassador Turki al-Faisal has abruptly left the United States and ended his 15-month tenure at the embassy. He left so quickly and with so little notice that none of the niceties of diplomatic protocol could be observed -- and with no explanation offered:
Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, flew out of Washington yesterday after informing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and his staff that he would be leaving the post after only 15 months on the job, according to U.S. officials and foreign envoys. There has been no formal announcement from the kingdom.
The abrupt departure is particularly striking because his predecessor, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, spent 22 years on the job. The Saudi ambassador is one of the most influential diplomatic positions in Washington and is arguably the most important overseas post for the oil-rich desert kingdom.
Turki, a long-serving former intelligence chief, told his staff yesterday afternoon that he wanted to spend more time with his family, according to Arab diplomats. Colleagues said they were shocked at the decision.
The exit -- without the fanfare, parties and tributes that normally accompany a leading envoy's departure, much less a public statement -- comes as his brother, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the highly influential Saudi foreign minister, is ailing.
How strange is this departure? Turki had been conducting a goodwill offensive as late as last week, attempting to put a fresh and open face on US-Saudi relations. Sunday, Jonathan Curiel noted it in his San Francisco Chronicle column:
Everywhere he goes -- whether it's a lecture hall at Harvard University or the Lower Ninth Ward of the Crescent City -- Saudi Arabia's new ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, is connecting to audiences in ways that are uncharacteristic for a diplomat from the Arabian peninsula. Public displays of humor, wit and empathy are not trademarks of Saudi society, but Turki has been thrust into a difficult position: Be the U.S. face of Saudi Arabia at a time when Americans still closely associate the nation with Osama bin Laden, the Sept. 11 terror attacks and unrelenting Islamic fundamentalism. ...
In person, Turki is the antithesis of Bandar. Where Bandar was brash, Turki is coolheaded. Where Bandar relished being the center of attention, Turki seems to go there as needed. In fact, for as long as Bandar was Saudi Arabia's high-profile ambassador in Washington, Turki was the country's behind-the-scenes foreign intelligence chief -- someone who, mostly out of public view, oversaw Riyadh's security dealings with the United States, France, Afghanistan and other countries.
Soft-spoken (at least compared with Bandar) and avuncular, Turki, 61, has a reputation for making visitors feel at ease despite his aristocratic title and upbringing. Called his royal highness by Saudis and visitors who follow strict protocol, Turki is the son of the late Saudi King Faisal. Turki, says Seznec, could one day be king himself.
"I've been straightforward" with Americans, Turki says in an interview with The Chronicle as he sits behind the desk at his ambassadorial office, surrounded by photos of the Saudi monarchy. "And I must say that Americans have been very hospitable in receiving me but also have listened graciously to what I've had to tell them."
Saud has been in poor health for a few years. He has something akin to Parkinson's, according to the Post's report of chronic "tremors". Last year he fell in the shower and fractured his shoulder, and the questions regarding his health have only become more insistent. Turki has long been the rumored successor, and his sudden recall for family reasons sounds like something bad has happened at home. The Saudis consider the Washington assignment their most critical diplomatic post, and the quick departure signals something deeply wrong has happened.
Why would Turki need to rush home, if Saud has become incapacitated? The security and diplomatic situation in the region is obviously tense, and the Saudis need to have an actively engaged foreign minister close to home. They could have one of the other Saudi princes take the job temporarily, but that might lead to other problems, perhaps even with Turki. Given the precarious state of their relations with Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran, the Saudis need their first stringer in the game.
What does that mean for the US? First, it means we will get another ambassador from the House of Saud, and that means another reconsideration of the relationship between the two nations. Turki has presented a pro-Western stance in his assignments in the US and the UK, but whether that continues will depend on the whim of King Abdullah, no spring chicken himself. They face increasing pressure over the American involvement in Iraq as well as their cooperation in the general war on terror. Their policies are likely to remain consistent, however, if for no other reason than their fear of Iranian hegemony over all else.
One other possibility remains. Abdulllah himself may have fallen ill or died, and Turki may have returned home quickly to establish himself as the best choice of successor. The sudden death of Abdullah after a little more than a year on the throne could generate more instability in Saudi Arabia and a further inspiration to al-Qaeda. It would be important to have the successor in place before the announcement was made of a royal death.
Keep an eye on Saudi Arabia; we have not heard the last of this.Sphere It View blog reactions
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Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., told his staff he wanted more family time. Washington Post: Saudi Ambassador Abruptly Resigns, Leaves Washington Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United... [Read More]
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"Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, flew out of Washington yesterday after informing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and his staff that he would be leaving the post after only 15 months on the job, according... [Read More]
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