Saudi Arabia's role in the Middle East is complex, made only more complicated by the Kingdom's interactions with neighboring nations and its efforts to promote social reform within, Prince Turki Al-Faisal asserted in a discussion on Nov. 22.
Prince Turki, the former Saudi Ambassador to the United States and a member of the Saudi royal family, spoke briefly about the Kingdom's relations with the United States, telling the audience that he has been following the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath. "I have described it as a huge Bollywood production on steroids," he said. "There is much to learn from your democracy, but there is also much to regret."
Prof. Shai Feldman (POL), the director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, which sponsored the event, asked Prince Turki how post-election tensions regarding Muslim Americans might affect Saudi Arabia's relationship with the United States. "It's still a question mark, and to try to speculate how a Trump presidency might handle these issues is perhaps premature," Prince Turki replied.
Feldman also asked Prince Turki for his opinion on Trump's statement that countries around the world benefitting from the United States' security umbrella should contribute to defense funding. Prince Turki replied that Trump is, at heart, a businessman, and "businessmen look at financial records very closely." However, he said, Trump will find that Saudi Arabia pays for all of its defense obligations and "has never been stingy about paying top dollar for American products."
"It will be up to President Trump to look at the figures as they are, and not as they are imagined to be," he added.
Prince Turki also discussed Saudi Arabia's role in the ongoing Syrian civil war, describing the conflict as "a blot on humanity and humanity's conscience." He noted that Saudi Arabia has taken in millions of Syrian refugees, allowing them to stay and work or leave the country whenever they want.
He also criticized Russia's involvement in the conflict, saying, "To work with Russia is like abetting the murder against the victim." He added that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is "the biggest terrorist of them all."
In a question-and-answer session during the event, one attendee from Aleppo asked Prince Turki what tools Saudi Arabia could use to help the Syrian people. Prince Turki responded that Saudi Arabia hopes to have a permanent ceasefire in effect before going directly to the Syrian people to help them rebuild. However, he added, the process of bringing peace and stability back to Syria can only be successful if the parties involved "can sit at the table instead of throwing rocks at each other."
Reflecting inwardly, Prince Turki also told the audience about some of the Kingdom's political and economic reforms. Saudi Arabia has plans to establish two councils, he said: one on politics and foreign and security affairs, and the other on economic development. These councils should help meet political and economic needs in the Kingdom, he asserted.
An audience member asked Prince Turki about the social climate in Saudi Arabia, referring to recent social reforms as "democratization without liberation."
Prince Turki responded that there are more civil societies lobbying for reform than ever before in the Kingdom, although he did note that these societies must receive government permission to operate. The reason for this policy, he explained, is to prevent groups from taking advantage of the system to try to upset social harmony via anti-government work. "I think it is give-and-take on that issue," he said.
Another audience member asked Prince Turki to clarify an earlier comment he made criticizing how the media operates in the Middle East. "Who's to decide what is a free press?" Prince Turki responded. "There is nobody but the press itself."
He added that there should be criteria for how a free press operates, noting that he is uncomfortable with the idea of an unlicensed press.
Prince Turki expressed concerns that an unchecked press could print something damaging about someone that later turns out to be untrue. "Nobody is protected from the media, but the media is protected from everybody," he said.
In an interview with the Justice, Feldman noted that while he has not heard directly from anyone upset with Prince Turki's visit, he would not be surprised if there were some controversy, given that Saudi Arabia is not a liberal democracy. However, he said, "We should keep our eyes and ears open to everybody and engage. I believe very strongly that everyone in the Middle East has different narratives on the situation."
"It's only a reflection of our commitment to hear every point of view," Feldman said of the event.