The Prince Naif I knew |
Arab News - 02 August, 2012
Author: Tanya C. Hsu
Second of a two-part series)
History indeed bears Prince Naif out. By the mid-fifties and after 25 years of grievances — when the future crown prince was 22 years old — the Kingdom’s patience had run out. Royalty payments had lined the pockets of the first American oilmen and had short-changed Saudi Arabia’s treasury; promises of promotions, infrastructure implementation and basic facilities for the workers had still not been met despite contracts and pledges. Not even a school that had been promised by the original Aramco had been built. “Haven’t you read your Bible?” was an Aramco executive’s answer to Saudi pressure. “It says that Saudi Arabians are supposed to live in tents all their lives.” By June 17, 1956, the Saudi and Asian workers at Aramco had had enough and stopped work, and the Kingdom witnessed its largest strike in history. The non-Americans mobilized to demand their rights: Equal employment opportunities, decent housing, and permission for their wives to live with them on site. The Saudi government took charge, revamped the royalty payment structure to benefit the producer not the importers, and insisted the American promises be fulfilled. It was the first step leading to 100 percent control of Aramco years later and a turning point in the balance of power. Despite the received wisdom of the US as having given the Saudis so much so freely, the Kingdom saw the arrangement as one of practical trade and economics, and paid for accordingly — at top dollar.
Later, in the 1990s, the country again paid a premium for services rendered. “During the Gulf War,” Prince Naif said, “we supported all the men and women they brought over, including even their food. We provided the power, the housing, and we opened all our facilities to them, including airports. And it cost Saudi Arabia ... this war ... it cost us more than 90 billion dollars. We even paid the salary of some of the soldiers! Not the United States, but other countries.” This generosity, he proclaimed, led to an even greater sense of disappointment with a friendship that held so much suspicion after 9/11. The Saudis are a proud people and don’t require thanks, but was it necessary, he pondered — given all these decades of aid and commitment — to so egregiously tarnish the image of the Kingdom? To allow such anti-Islamic sentiments to fester and dominate so as to feed the prejudices of the public?
In fact, he admired the people of the United States but was troubled that they had been presented with such a warped vision of Islam of late. He believed they had “enough wisdom, and a view that could look at these things and analyze them. We are different than what they are trying to portray.” Prince Naif believed the Kingdom — like any nation in the world — should be able to respond to valid, informed criticism, but this ought not to remain one-sided. “We have our own opinions, and should be tackled by all parties with what they are saying. We can deal with anything — all matters and subjects” as long as they are presented fairly, he maintained. The only thing that remained untouchable was the Saudi social culture. “We would like the United States to understand: Our relationship will not encroach on internal affairs. This is not a subject to be negotiated.” He continued, “Things that are private to us should be reserved for us. Our internal affairs are our business and should be respected by the United States ... this is the same thing we would do for them.”
“The Islam we follow,” he said, “follows the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and in these two things you will find the manners and method to have a great relationship with all nations and all countries and all people around the world.” If Saudi Arabia respected the “mutual interests and beliefs of all the people” in the world, why could the same not be done in return? Why do foreigners constantly agitate against the Kingdom? Why couldn’t the rest of the world leave Saudi Arabia alone, Prince Naif mused? It was a recurring concern of his, truly aggrieved at the unjustified condemnation upon his land, culture, traditions and people.
Disturbed at the misrepresentation of the oil-producing state, he accused Western oil companies of profiting from Saudi oil for personal gain by manipulating prices. “When the price of a barrel of oil went down to $ 8, the people who bought it then went and sold it for $ 100 abroad! It is very clear that the importers have more benefit from the barrels of oil than our exporters. It hurts our economy when this happens.” His anger was evident on the matter and held nothing back. “They were crooks, he said. “They are money launderers! We are against them all.”
“What’s important for us is to have a relationship with the whole world, with everyone in the world, to build upon economics, science and politics,” Prince Naif intoned. But when it came to the matter of self-defense, it was up to Saudi Arabia to handle the matter internally and alone. “This is our legitimate right,” he stated, firmly pointing out that the state had no relations “with any of the bad people” out to harm the country.
There were two contradictory elements at work amongst the enemies of the Kingdom. One particular issue disturbed him deeply, repeated many times. “Osama Bin Laden claimed that Saudi Arabia is a friend of the West and of the United States, and that we do what we are told to do by them,” he said in scorn. “Yet at the same time, the West and the United States say that we support those people! That we are the ones who built them up. Where are we supposed to stand if the two totally conflict with each other?”
Watching the attacks of 9/11 on television live on CNN that day, Prince Naif was shocked at the extent of damage to the World Trade Center made possible by two hijacked airplanes. They were successful, he sadly reflected, in achieving the goal of “turning opinions upside down ... to get the American people against Islam and Saudi Arabia.”
For this reason, the minister of the interior and head of intelligence questioned much about the events. It would be easier to believe Al-Qaeda was responsible, he believed, were it not for the fact that the United States failed to provide proof of their complicity. Despite all the cooperation by Saudi Arabia with the United States since, he explained, in all the years nothing had been presented to the Kingdom. “In a criminal case, doesn’t the prosecution look for material evidence, something tangible, to lead him to the one charged?” he asked. “But in this case, with no material proof, who is the beneficiary of the crime? That leads to who really did this.”
Full of contempt for Al-Qaeda and any violent extremists, Prince Naif remained skeptical as to the capacity of a few wanted men hiding in caves to have orchestrated such a complicated synchronized mission. “I look down upon them,” he derided, “but they would not be able to do such things.” He repeated his doubts. “They said to us that Bin Laden was behind that, but they have shown no proof for us to see...”
He then turned to look to the windows, pain in his eyes. “This whole thing,” he mused, “it has got to be an international lie. A big international lie. The United States knows the truth about Saudi Arabia. Without a doubt, it will not be subject to conflict I am sure.”
Prince Naif then leaned forward and issued an ultimatum. “I challenge anyone, whether now or in the future, to bring to us evidence that could show a connection between Saudi Arabia and 9/11!” Stressing his point, he continued, “Let them prove that Saudi Arabia had a relationship or related activities that enabled these acts! We know our people, our truth, our reality. This is an act of others who are able and who had an interest to do it.” It was act not only of state-sponsorship, he said, almost “too far from reality. Saudi Arabia could not do it.” It appeared that in the absence of documentary substantiation, he clung to remaining skeptical to the last.
The terrorism acts of September 2001 scarred the Kingdom, the Arab world, Islam, and Prince Naif personally; he felt all Saudis had been so marred. Having watched his land transformed from barely revealing water, to producing more oil than any other country in the world today, one singular act seemed to him to have eradicated so much of the good the Kingdom had given others.
I was last in touch with Prince Naif earlier this year when I sent belated condolences to him directly after the death of his brother, the late Crown Prince Sultan. Traveling for medical treatment soon thereafter, few anticipated he not return home, recovered and in good health. It was not to be. Expecting an important policy presentation from me, he sadly passed away before I had a chance to deliver it to him.
The crown prince’s support of, and from, the mutwa’in was because of the love for Saudi Arabia’s traditions and religion. Respected throughout the Kingdom for his robust commitment to resisting change from outside forces, he cherished his culture and saw no value in racing to replace it. No matter his public legacy, my own private memories remain of a kind man with a generous soul who loved all people in equal measure.
Saudi Arabia’s strong but gentle wind has blown silent.
— Tanya Cariina Hsu is a British political analyst specializing in US-Saudi foreign policy. She was educated at the University of Essex (economics) and the University of Oxford (Islamic studies), and moved to Saudi Arabia in 2005.
— This article is exclusive to Arab News