December 14, 2006

A Saudi Split

The abrupt departure of Saudi ambassador Turki al-Faisal indicates deep divisions within the Saudi royal family, according to the Times of London. Turki flew out of Washington not to prepare for changes at home, but because King Abdullah wanted a change in Washington:

Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States has returned to Riyadh after resigning abruptly because his posting was not renewed by King Abdullah. ...

Prince Turki’s resignation also hinted at splits within the ranks of the secretive Saudi Royal Family. The Times has learnt from Saudi sources that he resigned because King Abdullah had not renewed his four-year service contract, which is the normal condition for all serving Saudi ministers and ambassadors.

The King’s unusual decision was seen as a diplomatic way of disguising what was, in effect, the Ambassador’s dismissal. But Prince Turki was warned that his term would not be renewed, and so took the initiative himself in deciding to return to Riyadh.

It is unclear whether the King had lost confidence in the country’s most senior ambassador, who is the brother of Prince Saud al-Faisal, the longserving Foreign Minister. But it is understood that Prince Turki did not feel comfortable with his working conditions in Washington.

This comes as a bit of a surprise, but perhaps it shouldn't. After all, the Saudis have not been happy with the US recently, and Turki has not succeeded in improving the Saudi image here in America. It hasn't been for lack of effort, but his public relations offensive has not put Americans at ease with Saudi Arabia.

Speculation had Turki succeeding Saud as the foreign minister after a long career in intelligence and diplomacy. The Times report makes that much more unlikely. However, Abdullah might want to recall the wisdom of Lyndon Johnson, who famously preferred his political opponents "inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in" (a specific reference to J. Edgar Hoover). A "retired" Turki back in Riyadh may be more trouble than having him in Washington DC -- and that kind of split at home could result in the unraveling of the public unity of the Saudi royal family.

Another possibility exists. Abdullah may have decided to put Turki back to use in the intelligence field, given the situation in Iraq and the vacillation of the US at this time. That instability would force the Saudis to step up their own missions in Iraq, and it would require someone with connections to Sunni radical forces -- connections that cost Turki his intelligence post in 2001.

Whatever the case, clearly not all is well in Riyadh. They have picked a tough time to have a family squabble, and Turki doesn't seem like the kind of man who would take retirement well. If Abdullah wants him out to pasture, he may have to take more forceful action than just providing a gold watch.


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