|By HRH Prince Turki AlFaisal|
|Thursday, 17 March 2011|
My speech today is entitled “A Political History of Saudi Arabia”. My goal is more than to simply recount facts from the past. I also hope to show that despite the turmoil taking place in so many Middle Eastern nations, as well as predictions among some pundits that such turmoil is bound to find its way into the Kingdom, the history of the Saudi state is in fact the history of a government that has developed over time in response to the needs of its people, and it is a progressive, active, modern political entity that due to its past actions is uniquely secure in its future.
For the purposes of this presentation, I have decided to present Saudi political history in seven phases. For those of you with a literary bent, this sub-division may remind you of Shakespeare’s famous “seven ages of man” as expressed by Jacques in his “All the world’s a stage” speech in As You Like It. Yet there is one important difference between the Bard’s schema and mine. Shakespeare’s seven ages of man describe the cycle of birth, growth, and eventual demise, leading, as he so eloquently says, to “a second childishness and mere oblivion; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” My seven phases of Saudi political history, while nowhere near as poetic, progresses differently, for the Saudi state, thanks to years of successful institution building, is in full possession of its teeth, eyes, taste and everything it needs to continue to govern and prosper.
So, let us now go back in time. The first phase, which started in 1925, I shall simply call “The Phase of Unity,” for it was in that year that the late King Abdulaziz, following several centuries of inter-tribal division, united what was then the Kingdom of the Hijaz and the Sultanate of Nejd and its Dependencies into what in 1932 would become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Following this unification, he called for the first Islamic Conference ever to be held since the dissolution of the Ottoman Khalifate in 1922. In the inaugural speech at that Conference, delivered in 1926, he stressed the need for Muslims everywhere to overcome their sectarian and political differences. Further, at a time when there were only three truly independent Muslim nations - Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen - he advised those who came from the mostly still colonized Muslim lands not to provoke and denigrate the non-Muslims in their midst but to concentrate on sharing and learning from their skills and know-how in order to help each other.
He also stressed that his newly united realm was in serious need of the expertise of other Muslims, regardless of their race or sect, and thus his first act upon entering the Mosque in Makkah as a pilgrim was to appoint an Egyptian Muslim Shafe’i scholar as Imam of the Mosque. Given the battles over Makkah that had raged for many years between Egyptians and others on the Peninsula, this was a singularly astute gesture and was an indicator of the Kingdom’s growing openness to the rest of the world. He also planted the first seeds of institution building establishing the Shura (Consultative) Council who were tasked with devising what was the first Basic Law of Governance in the Kingdom.
However, King AbdulAziz was soon to find that not everyone shared or valued his openness to others. As he quickly began fostering relations between the Kingdom and the international community, he soon faced the emerging bigotry of some of his closest allies among the Bedouin chiefs who had worked with him for unification. In short, they had developed political ambitions that they tried to veil in a religious context by accusing the King of consorting with infidels and introducing non-Muslim practices and tools, such as the radio and the automobile. After recurrent insurrections, the King called for a public debate between himself and the unruly Bedouin leaders.
At this debate, the people and the religious scholars served as judges. When the more than 800 citizens at the debate favoured the King’s arguments, his opponents declared open rebellion. Fortunately, the King’s military skill and popular appeal overcame them and he was able to carry on with his vision of creating the Saudi Arabia that exists today - a thriving and open modern country that contributes significantly to the welfare of humanity.
And so it was that the state was created around the Basic Law, and the Consultative Council, or Majilis al-Shura, was instituted. This conference, law and council basically put into practice a government structure that is the frame of Saudi Arabia, today. It was the first step in a process that is still underway, changing the political environment of the peninsula from one based on tribal and regional loyalties to one based on national identity.
Further, with the institution of the state came a gradual improvement in the rule of law, justice and stability which had not been the norm in the area for many centuries. These developments in 1926 laid the groundwork for the establishment of the state in 1932 - a state that continues to progress and evolve until today. In 1953, the second phase began.
I shall call the second phase “The Phase of Ministers,” for it is in this phase, starting in 1953, that the structure of the government was approved by laws and the Council of Ministers was formed, only a couple months before King Abdulaziz died. To this day the Council is the highest legislative government body in the Kingdom. This was the beginning of the modern Saudi state and all the challenges and opportunities of institution building that this involves.
But first and foremost, the Phase of Ministers ushered in a new era in which the King stopped just being a traditional tribal leader and became a Prime Minister and statesman. Thus, the King began operating within a political structure that clearly circumscribed his role within a state organization. While still holding the right to issue Royal Orders (proclamations), legislating laws of governance became the provenance of the Council of Ministers. Regulations on the bureaucracy, the economy, social affairs, education, health, etc. could come, now, only by cabinet approval.
When Israel was created in 1948, the Kingdom took the same position as all of the Arab states; namely, not to recognize it and insist on restoring the right of the Palestinian people to a state, with its capital in East Jerusalem, and self-determination. This position continued in the fifties and to the present day. The Kingdom took these positions not only out of a sense of inherent justice, but in an attempt to placate and give expression to the widespread rage at the plight of the Palestinians that continues to burst forth from its own population as well as others.
In sum, the Kingdom declares these rights not only because they are naturally endowed and therefore intrinsically unassailable, but also out of a need for its own internal and external security.
The third phase, or what I call “The Phase of State Authority,” took place entirely within the year 1964, for it was then that King Faisal became King, an event significant in Saudi history because it marks the rule of institutional authority. Faisal became King because the ancient Islamic institution of ahl al hal walaqd, meaning, literally, those who tie the knot and untie it; i.e. the prominent figures in society, including the institutions of the Council of Ministers, the Ulema, and the royal family, chose him by offering the Bay’ah to him. The Bay’ah is the contract between the ruler and the ruled, defining their obligations to each other.
The Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him received the Bay’ah from his followers, as did all of the subsequent Muslim rulers who followed him. This was the outcome of an evolution in the vision of the political nature of the Kingdom - it had gone from rule by proclamation to rule by institutional authority, and in 1964, that process triumphed utterly over the more traditional ways of governing.
The next phase, starting in 1964, I shall term “The Phase of Planning”. In 1970 the first 5 Year Development Plan was launched by the Council of Ministers under the Prime Minister, who was also the King. All sectors of society were included in the plan, and it was the first sign that the Kingdom was beginning to see itself as a nation with a government that carried out widespread and progressive public policy initiatives. Most important during this phase was the expansion of the Foreign Scholarship Program, which sends students to study abroad, major education expenditures to build schools and hire teachers, and major road and infrastructure projects. Further, at a more direct and local level, state authorities began interacting with the outlying tribes, discussing with them the benefits of supporting and being involved with the Saudi state.
The Phase of Planning, which ran from 1964 to 1975, or the reign of King Faisal, was an intense and tumultuous time, full of many challenges and opportunities, all of which the Saudi state met head-on in its march toward greater development. This phase also saw a further rise in the ambitions of the late Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt and the Arab Socialist Movement, which sought to overthrow the Saudi government and establish a like-minded republic in the Arabian Peninsula.
Then came Britain’s withdrawal from East of Suez in 1971, which led to scrambling among international actors in the area for political gain and ideological ascendancy. And while the Kingdom sought and welcomed US support, the then mighty Soviet Union also promoted its ambitions through its callous opportunism vis a vis the Israeli colonization of Palestine by arms sales to Arab socialist countries and the nascent communist regime in South Yemen. We found ourselves caught in the middle of the Cold War and the Palestinian tragedy, and had to take many measures, due to the Soviet presence, to assure that our friendship with the United States and Western countries was clear and tangible.
The late King Faisal met these challenges with a skilful internal policy of political reform and external alliances with like minded Arab countries and the United States. His ten point program for reform, which he published in 1962 when he was still Viceroy to the late King Saud, included the expansion of women’s education, the establishment of a ministry of justice and the ministry of labour, and other equally pertinent acts.
In 1965, he inaugurated a dialogue with the late Pope Paul VI which culminated in a visit by the late Minister of Justice, Sheikh Mohammad Al Harakan, to the Vatican, and the return visit of the late Cardinal Pignedoli to the Kingdom. In that year the King issued his call for Islamic Solidarity, culminating in the establishment of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which is today the second largest international body to the United Nations, composed of fifty-seven permanent member countries and five associate members, including the Russian Federation.
It was an exciting time of development, openness, and advancement for the Kingdom. But as the 1970s progressed, and the importance of oil to the global economy increased, bigger changes were underway. Due to Saudi Arabia’s leadership among Arab nations, its role as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and its possession of over 25% of the world’s oil resources, the Kingdom was quickly becoming the premier global player in energy affairs, one of the most prominent countries in the Arab World, and the de facto leader of the Muslim World. The 1973 oil embargo on the United States because of its flagrant support of Israel during the Ramadan war cemented these roles.
Starting in 1975, after the assassination of King Faisal, the nation fully entered what I shall call “The Phase of Industry.” It is in this phase that industrialization took root in the Kingdom in the form of petrochemical facilities, electricity generation and distribution, water desalination plants, and, most importantly, the purchase of Saudi Aramco by buying its shares from its American owners.
There was no nationalization by decree as practised in many oil producing countries. The companies that established Aramco received a premium price for their shares. This was the free market way of doing business. It is the Saudi way. The Kingdom modernized in this phase at a fast pace, and the benefits of its oil wealth and modern amenities began reaching deep into the population. Schools were built at the rate of three per week, highways were laid where only dirt roads had been, medical services expanded beyond the cities, with Bedouins receiving them even as they followed their grazing camel herds by teams of medical technicians and doctors who examined them and dispensed medicines to them.
But industrialization did not come without its challenges. In November 1979, an attack on the Holy Mosque in Makkah by religious extremists showed that political ambition in the guise of religious zeal was still as dangerous as it had been under the late King Abdul Aziz and was already becoming capable of the brazen atrocities it would later carry out in cities around the world. Fortunately, after two long weeks of armed conflict between the Saudi military and the insurgents, which resulted in hundreds of deaths, the Mosque was finally cleared and the perpetrators brought to justice. It was an early indication of the long battle my country and other countries would face, and still face, against religious extremism.
In that same year, the revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan heralded a bleak decade in which the enemies of the Kingdom seemed to be gaining the upper hand. The zeal with which Iran’s Khomeini tried to export his revolution meant that there were inevitable differences between himself and the Kingdom. These differences led to clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces during the Muslim Pilgrimage to Makkah, which led, in the mid-eighties, to a break in diplomatic relations with Iran - relations not restored until 1995.
The Iran-Iraq war, which began in September 1980, and did not end until 1988, also exacerbated relations between the Kingdom and Iran, especially after 1982, when Iranian forces pushed out the Iraqis and declared their intention to invade Iraq. When the Kingdom provided financial aid to Iraq, the Iranians, in 1985, sent two aircraft to bomb Saudi oil facilities in Ras Tanura. They were fortunately shot down by the Saudi Air Force. So, as we can see, while Iraq and Iran are very much in the news in the West over the last twenty years, Saudi Arabia has been facing these problems for much longer.
Despite these challenges, industrialization and development continued at full speed, and then, in 1992, emerged what I shall call “The Phase of Nationalism.” In this phase the Second Basic Law, based on the first of 1926, was formalized to update the systems of governance. Further, the Consultative Assembly was re-established, and many subsequent reforms in the judiciary, the economy, and the role of women in society were begun. The Basic Law states clearly that the Kingdom is a Muslim state with its constitution being the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace is upon him. All in all, the 1990s were a time of considerable progress, expansion and international relationship-building for the Kingdom. This phase was capped by King Fahd’s Six Points Speech at the opening of the Shura Council in 2003. In that speech he presciently stated:
“The world we live in is at a crossroads, since ideals have been altered, certain coalitions terminated, and other groupings formed. The principles of international order have receded. The information revolution has affected all international foundations: social, economic and political. Every country is dealing with these changes and trying to understand them and relate to them with their cultural, social and political realities. They also aim at linking them to their historical heritage and values. We are part of this world and we cannot be disconnected from it. We cannot be mere spectators while the rest of the world is progressing towards a new global system. This country is the heart of the Muslim World, and the cradle of Arab identity.”
I call this time the Phase of Nationalism because it was during this era that Saudi Arabia began experiencing an assertive Saudi nationalism that fully transcends tribal and regional allegiances. While it has many causes, a few of the most important are the first Iraq War of 1990, from which we emerged victorious over an odious and malignant Saddam Hussein, the attacks of Al Qaeda on the United States and the Kingdom in 2001 and 2003 respectively, which led to an introspective revaluation of our values and beliefs, and the rise of an aggressive Iran over the last ten years. These events brought about a strong sense of national unity in the Saudi people, and we are still seeing the ripple effects of this assertive nationalism today.
It is in part this nationalist wave that has catapulted the country into its seventh phase, “The Phase of Internationalism,” which had been stirring for several years but became fully realized around the beginning of King Abdullah’s reign in 2005. During this phase, which we are still in, we have seen the Saudi state progress in its sophistication through such policy institutions as the Supreme Economic Council, the National Dialogues, and the Council for Succession, or Bay’ah, which I referred to before. But we have also seen the Saudi state looking outward in an ever more focused and responsible manner, attempting to bring stability to the region of which it is such a vital member. It is important to note that internal and external progress is linked closely together. A nation cannot be a strong and respected international player unless it is strong domestically, and this fact has guided the actions of the Saudi government.
King Abdullah has led this current phase largely throughout the entire 21st century, first in his service to King Fahd and then as King himself. For example, to honour King Fahd’s belief that women and men should have equal roles in the development of the Kingdom, as stated in his previously mentioned speech to the Majlis Al-Shura in 2003, King Abdallah expanded women’s education to all fields of knowledge and built the coeducational Abdallah University for Science and Technology.
He introduced the National Dialogue in which Saudis of both sexes and from a variety of socio-economic categories discuss controversial issues such as terrorism, women’s role in society, educational reform, religious speech, and many others. In its eighth year now, the Dialogue moves from town to town, province to province, holding public meetings in which anyone can say whatever he or she wishes, and all the sessions are televised so that the public can follow along. It is a very Saudi way of soul searching and engaging in participatory discussion, and we strongly believe that it is the right direction for our country to take as we look for newer and more innovative ways to involve all Saudis in the discourse about the direction their country should take.
One of King Abdallah’s earliest political actions occurred in 2002. He introduced the Arab Peace Initiative, which was adopted by all the Arab countries, in Beirut. It calls for total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab lands, including East Jerusalem, an agreed upon solution for the issue of refugees, in return for unequivocal Arab recognition of Israel, an end to hostilities, and normalization of relations.
The international reaction to the peace initiative was enormously positive. Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, said, “The Arab Peace Initiative is one of the pillars of the peace process...it sends a clear signal that the Arab world, too, craves peace.” Vocal support for the plan has come from a wide spectrum of leaders and thinkers, including President Obama, the European Union, all the major media outlets, written and viewed all over the world, and prominent political thinkers and pundits from all countries. Israel, Ladies and Gentlemen, remains the only country to refuse this fair and equitable Initiative for peace.
As the first decade of this century progressed, King Abdallah also took a number of steps to improve the economic situation of the Kingdom. For instance, he established the Supreme Economic Council and led the Kingdom into successfully gaining membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). He also revitalized the Supreme Petroleum Council and reorganized the judiciary so that it could deal more justly and efficiently with today’s complex global economy, including the dictates of the WTO.
In order to improve the education of the Kingdom’s citizens, he expanded the scholarship program for Saudi students to study abroad and we now have more than one hundred thousand young people attending the finest academic institutions in more than fifty countries. He also quadrupled the number of Saudi universities to meet the demands of a growing number of Saudi youngsters who want to acquire the skills to meet the complex demands of the future while remaining in their home country. But the King considers the King Abdallah University for Science and Technology, better known as KAUST, as the jewel in the Kingdom’s educational crown.
It is a post graduate research university where the student population is more than 65% non Saudi, where the President is a Singaporean Chinese scientist, and where the board of trustees is composed of distinguished academics and civic leaders from all over the world. This is a truly remarkable achievement that not only helps the Kingdom open up its intellectual horizons to the rest of the world, but it also stands as a strong statement against those nihilistic and xenophobic forces that seek to destroy the Kingdom in the name of radical extremism rather than build it up in the name of Islam.
The King’s other jewel in the crown is further evidence that Saudi Arabia has every intention of keeping up its opposition against the forces of hatred and regression. I am referring to his call for a dialogue between religions and cultures. This has grown out of the King’s firm belief that people have more in common than what divides them. He started by calling the Muslim World to a conference in the Holy City of Makkah in June 2008.
There he asked the representatives at the Conference to delegate him to initiate a dialogue with other religions and cultures. When they blessed his message, he then invited leaders from all over the world to another conference in Madrid. The Spanish monarch, Juan Carlos, graciously acted as host. From there, the King took his call to the United Nations General Assembly, where more than sixty-five heads of state convened and supported the King. A general secretariat is being established in Vienna to carry on this important work of bringing people of all religions and cultures into a dialogue of peace and prosperity.
I could go on for days recounting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s political history, as it is one of which I am especially proud. The Kingdom is a place of progress and stability. And this progress and stability have been hard won by actions of the past which continue very much today as the nation strives for a better future. Unlike so many countries that are now encountering unrest, Saudi Arabia has seen practically no turmoil within its borders.
And there is a very simple reason for this. The Saudi people, unlike those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, have not been the subjects of neglect and corruption, but instead have been active and valued participants in the creation of a fully progressive, modern, inclusive state. The Kingdom and its people, from the King to the school child, do not have the arrogance to believe that we have reached perfection. We have a long way ahead of us, of turmoil and struggle, of ambition and accomplishments, of tearing down walls of bigotry and hatred. For this reason, the vast majority of the people support their country.
In exchange for this loyalty, the Saudi leadership will tirelessly pursue its agenda of improving the government institutions to better address and improve the lives of its people - an agenda it has been pursuing for over 80 years, taking to heart Shakespeare’s assessment of the nation’s role in our lives in Titus Andronicus: “to heal harms and wipe away woes.” As you have seen, Ladies and Gentlemen, what was supposed to be and loudly touted by your media organs as a Day of Rage in the Kingdom turned out to be a Day of Tranquillity, as any Friday is in the land of Islam.
Global Arab Network
The article is an extracts from HRH Prince Turki AlFaisal’s Speech at MEA Annual Lunch in London.
Monday, March 21, 2011
Prince Turki Highlights Political History of Saudi Arabia By HRH Prince Turki AlFaisal
Prince Turki Highlights Political History of Saudi Arabia
Posted by Michele Kearney at 4:12 PM