Interview with a Saudi Prince

HRH Prince Abdullah bin Mosa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Sa’ud was born in Riyadh in 1965. His grandfather was the first King of modern Saudi Arabia and every subsequent King has been an uncle. Prince Abdullah obtained his bachelors degree in industrial engineering and his Masters degree in mechanical engineering. In 1990 with only $2 million in seed capital, Prince Abdullah established the Saudi Paper Manufacturing Company. 15 years later, Saudi Paper has grown into a $500 million business and is currently the largest tissue manufacturer and paper recycler in the Middle East. Prince Abdullah is also a past President of Al Hilal Al Saudi Football Club and an avid 49-ers fan. Recently, Prince Abdullah was, along with Queen Rania of Jordan and Crown Prince Salman Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, a recipient of the “Most Influential Young Arab of the Year Award”. I spoke with him recently while he was in the United States to attend a special function for The Carter Centre. Q: Dubai has turned into a darling child of sorts for the Arab world. Do you see Saudi Arabia or any other countries emulating the success of Dubai on a larger scale? A: I think that there are a lot of things we can learn from Dubai. I am proud as an Arab of what Dubai has accomplished but as with many things, we cannot copy entirely what Dubai has done, as Saudi Arabia is a much different country. Q: How do you see the business climate in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf changing in the next few years? A: Business in general is changing for the better in the region, especially following higher oil prices. We’re definitely moving in the right direction. Q: Is the business environment in the country conducive to such a change? A: If you look around the Kingdom, you will find a lot of Saudis educated in the West but connected with the region. We have a lot of dedicated Saudis and compared to their peers around the Middle East and the world, they are quite capable. We are ready for what lies ahead. Q: Has there been a real effort to take the Middle East off its reliance of oil, and what has become of it? What do you see as the best thing Saudi Arabia can do to put itself in a better position for the next decade economically, politically, and socially? A: If you were to ask me, I would say this is probably the most important question you are asking. We as Saudis hear that the oil will finish in fifty to a hundred years; however, we have not seriously started to prepare. It will be in our children’s future. It is my biggest worry for Saudi; we haven’t done enough to prepare. There are many other issues, however, that we have to deal with as well, one of which is local debt. We will eventually have to have taxes, and I see this as a benefit. It will make people more accountable to their government and vice versa and will push a drive for more Saudization. We have too many foreign workers. [Note: Saudization is the process of bringing more Saudis into the nation’s workforce and limiting the nation’s dependence on foreign labor.] Q: Is there a real consensus that Al Qaeda and its affiliates pose serious threats to the stability of the Kingdom? A: I do not think they are a serious threat. They made a big mistake when they attacked the Western compounds and Al-Muhaya Compound. They lost a lot of support from the few Saudi sympathizers they had by attacking innocent civilians. Q: How strong or widespread is popular support for the group? A: They don’t have popular support. Following the attacks, a lot of Saudis started to ask themselves the right questions. The Prophet Muhammad PBUH made it clear: you cannot attack civilians, whether [they are] Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Saudis have started to come to the realization of what is going on and Al Qaeda is losing support. Q: How desirable are Civil Rights changes to the Kingdom? A: We as Saudis should be good Muslims and follow our own ideals. For example, I am all for the rights of women. The Prophet Muhammad’s wife use to be a trader and businesswoman. When we discuss civil rights in the country, we should apply Islamic ideals. We are a conservative society and do what we need to according to the Qur’an. Q: Is there a real demand for change on the scale the US wants? A: I think we should change, but not because the US demands it. I don’t have any issues with the US; I have many good friends who are Americans but at the same time, we should only change because it is good for us and for our society. Q: Do you think that elections on a larger scale will materialize in the Kingdom? A: I think so. I would not be surprised if in four to five years we have elections for the Majlis-al-Shoura and add more checks and balances to the system. [Note: Majlis-al-Shoura is a consultative body to the Saudi government, similar to the US Congress, and is currently appointed by the King.] Q: Women’s rights are frequently brought up. What changes do you see in this area coming about in the Kingdom soon? A: I don’t think we should segregate women and men, since I don’t believe Islam demands segregation the way we have traditionally practiced it in Saudi Arabia. It is an area where I think we let our culture mix with religion. We need to look hard at women’s rights. Fifty years ago, women and men use to mix freely. Unfortunately, when Nasser and the Communists took the region to the left, the Saudi reaction was to move to the right. [Note: Nasser is the former President of Egypt, known for his good relations with the USSR.] Q: Has the invasion of Iraq done anything to benefit regional stability? A: I don’t think it [has] benefit[ed] regional stability. It [has] create[d] a lot of militants fighting the forces there, who may move back into Saudi. I am very worried about the risks this poses. I opposed the war from the start. Although Saddam Hussein was one of the worst criminals of our time, this was not the way to get rid of him. Q: What in your opinion are the odds of a positive outcome? A: I should be optimistic but I’m not. I’ll be glad when there’s a strong Iraqi government, but I don’t see that happening soon. Q: What is the greatest worry with a collapsed Iraq? A: That, like Afghanistan in 1979, it turns into a training ground for extremism. Just like the US can’t control the Mexican border, Saudi Arabia can’t entirely control its Iraqi border. If the militants come back, it could be terrible. Q: How threatening are Iran’s moves to regional security? A: I think the US is being hypocritical in its nuclear policy. Why do we never hear about the Israeli nuclear arsenal? All we hear is that Pakistan has one or Iran is trying to get one and that they are the problem. I am all for ridding the whole region of WMDs and indeed, the whole world. As a Saudi, however, if Iran has nuclear weapons, I see no reason why we shouldn’t also have them. In any case, Iran will not use them on Israel, since everyone knows that Israel has its own deterrence. Q: What effect on peace initiatives do you think the election victory of Hamas will have? A: I am strongly against suicide bombs or attacks against any civilians anywhere. It is wrong under Islam. Prophet Muhammad PBUH spoke against killing civilians. I believe Hamas should be given a chance as well; they are not corrupt, and the Palestinian people chose them, [so] they should be given every chance. Hamas should not be launching suicide bombers, but at the same time, the West should be less hypocritical in dealing with democracy. Q: What do Saudis think is a just solution? A: I’m not a Palestinian so I can’t pretend to understand what it really feels like to lose your home. Still, I have some sense of the pain and anguish felt by many Palestinians. My nanny lost her home in 1948. The house is still there but strangers are living in it. Imagine how you’d feel if the house you grew up in was taken from you and strangers moved in, used your furniture and ate off your plates while you lived in a squalid refugee camp. Real justice would be if all the Arabs got their homes back, but we know that this isn’t possible. The Jews there should stay. Arabs have in general accepted the reality of a two-state solution behind 1967 borders and this is what I believe is the reasonable solution. It requires both sides to give up certain dreams which simply aren’t fair for the other side. I as a Muslim have no problem with this solution. I have many Jewish friends and the Arabs and Jews have a century’s old tradition of living peacefully together. The historical truth is that the Jews and the Christians have had more trouble living in peace than the Jews and the Muslims. In any case, we must have a just and fair solution for everyone and that means that we should live side by side with the 1967 borders. Q: Relations with the US have been troubled recently. Do you see relations with the US getting better anytime soon, and have both sides made an effort to improve them? A: I think relations are better than before, however I don’t like how Saudis are portrayed in the media or treated at airports. I was invited to a function with [f President Carter, and at the airport, my kids were “randomly” body searched, and my son is only 8 years old! Q: After King Abdullah’s recent visits to the East, do you see relations with those nations becoming more important, and potentially become more important than the relationship with the US? A: As a Saudi, I hope we have great relations with China and India. I don’t claim to be an expert in international relations, however, I think it is better to have a strategic relationship with more than one country, and I am proud of the symbolic gesture made by King Abdullah. His first trip as King was to China and India. Bush spoke [during his State of the Union Address] about reducing oil dependency by 75%, [but] we all know it is about politics. As the phrase goes, “Nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. Only permanent interests.” As the oil wanes, our importance will decline, and so we should be a strong nation with or without the US. The Phillipian thanks Prince Abdullah for his time.