Saudi prince slams Hamas, Israel and the West
Prince Turki al-Faisal’s recent address on the ongoing violence in the Middle East stands out for its uncommonly candid nature, particularly coming from a senior member of the Saudi royal family.
It has been widely recognized as the clearest indication to date of the Saudi leadership’s perspective on the situation.
Prince Turki, who holds a respected position in Saudi circles as an elder statesman, openly criticized both Hamas and Israel for their attacks on civilians.
This condemnation followed the events of Hamas’s attack on southern Israel on October 7th and the subsequent Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Prince Turki emphasized that there were no heroes in this situation, only victims.
The outrage among many Arabs at the Israeli airstrikes is so intense that Prince Turki while addressing a U.S. audience at Rice University in Houston, is a rare Arab voice offering criticism of Hamas in the current climate. He asserted that the actions of the group contradicted Islamic principles that discourage harming civilians, noting that most of those affected by Hamas’s actions were civilians.
Prince Turki, known for his thoughtful approach as a former diplomat and intelligence chief, balanced his condemnation of Hamas by also criticizing Israel. He accused Israel of indiscriminately bombing innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza and making indiscriminate arrests of Palestinian children, women, and men in the West Bank.
Additionally, Prince Turki challenged the use of the term “unprovoked attack” in reference to the October 7th raid, questioning what more provocation was needed given Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people over many decades. He also asserted that “all militarily occupied people have a right to resist occupation.”
Prince Turki did not spare Western politicians from his criticism, pointing out their differing responses to Israeli and Palestinian casualties, with a tendency to show sorrow when Israelis are killed by Palestinians while neglecting to express similar sympathy when Palestinians are killed by Israelis.
President Joe Biden has since said, during his visit to Israel, that the US mourned all innocent victims.
So what lies behind this speech, which the prince must have known would be widely reported?
It is unlikely that he would have spoken without first checking in with his country’s Royal Court, run by the all-powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who held talks with Rishi Sunak on Thursday.
Prince Turki has quite a pedigree. His father was the popular and modernizing King Faisal, who was assassinated in 1975. His brother was Saudi Arabia’s longstanding foreign minister until his death in 2015.
Prince Turki’s US and British education at Princeton, Cambridge, and Georgetown has given him an invaluable perspective on Western culture and thinking, as well as providing him with lifelong contacts amongst decision-makers in Washington and Whitehall.
He went on to become Saudi Arabia’s spy chief, running the foreign intelligence department for 24 years, with special responsibility for Afghanistan.
Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 he became Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in London and then Washington.
In London, his media spokesman at the embassy was the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was eventually murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by Saudi government agents in 2018. Saudi Arabia blamed this on an unauthorized “rogue operation”.
Now aged 78, with no formal position in the Saudi government, Prince Turki al-Faisal nevertheless provides an intriguing insight into Saudi thinking on the few occasions when he speaks publicly at international forums.
Saudi Arabia’s rulers don’t like Hamas. In fact, many of the governments in the region don’t like it either. The rulers of Egypt, Jordan, UAE, and Bahrain see Hamas and its revolutionary brand of so-called “political Islam” as a threat to their secular rule.
The Palestinian Authority, based on Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, which governs the parts of the West Bank that have not been colonized by Israel, was effectively chased out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007. Some of its members were thrown off the roofs of high buildings during a short-lived internecine conflict.
Although Hamas maintains a political office in Qatar its main backer is Iran, which has long been a historic rival to Saudi Arabia.
Although the Saudis and Iranians formally agreed to end their dispute in March this year, there remains considerable mutual mistrust between them. Despite this, they have jointly condemned Israel’s bombing of Gaza and reaffirmed their support for a Palestinian state.
It is hard to believe now but only two weeks ago, prior to the Hamas raid, Saudi Arabia was well on the way to normalizing ties with Israel, just as the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco have done. This is now on hold.
Several analysts believe that Hamas’s deadly raid into Israel was partly prompted by a desire to derail that normalization that would have left Hamas and Iran sidelined in a new Middle East.
Will things ever return to the status quo in the region?
Right now, it is hard to see that happening, with a wounded Israel in no mood for compromise and nervous Arab governments eyeing the growing anti-Israel protests on the streets.
But when the current conflict in Gaza ends, as it must do, then it may well be Saudi Arabia’s deep pockets that help fund its reconstruction. It will be worth watching Prince Turki’s speeches for the Saudi view of whatever comes next.