Former Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal Dies

0709_Saud_al_Faisal
Former Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal died on Thursday, July 9, 2015. He was the world's longest serving foreign minister when he was replaced on April 29, 2015. Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

RIYADH (Reuters) - Prince Saud al-Faisal, who retired in April after serving 40 years as Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, died on Thursday, two Saudi sources and media close to the ruling family said.

His tenure saw Israel invade Lebanon in 1978, 1982 and 2006, the eruption of Palestinian intifadas in 1987 and 2000, Iraq's invasions of Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, and the occupation of Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition in 2003.

Equally at home in Arab robes or a tweed suit and tie, and as fluent in English as in Arabic, Prince Saud proved adept at cutting through diplomatic niceties to deliver Saudi Arabia's message with pith and wit.

During a moment of tension in Saudi ties with its main ally the United States in 2004, he described the relationship as "a Muslim marriage" in which the kingdom could retain different wives if it treated them all with fairness.

He retained that incisiveness even as a chronic back complaint and other maladies in recent years made his hands shaky and his speech slurred.

Asked in early 2012 if it would be a good idea to arm Syria's rebels, he said briskly: "I think it's an excellent idea."

Prince Saud, a son of King Faisal, was born in 1940 in Taif near Mecca, where in 1989 he helped negotiate the agreement that ended Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

A degree at Princeton in the 1960s was followed by years at the Petroleum Ministry, where he was taken under the wing of his father's canny and charismatic oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani.

His career as a diplomat began traumatically: the new King Khaled named him as foreign minister following the assassination of Prince Saud's father Faisal, who had retained the foreign affairs portfolio after being made king in 1962.

For all his talents as a diplomat, however, Prince Saud failed to build the kingdom's foreign ministry into a body with great institutional depth.

Diplomats in Riyadh have described Saudi foreign policy as being like a searchlight: intensely focused, but only on the issues of most interest to the king and Prince Saud.

COMPLICATED HISTORY

When he was appointed in October 1975, the region was dominated by Cold War rivalries, and secular pan-Arab nationalism seemed to be the future.

Egypt and Israel had not yet made peace, and Yasser Arafat led the Palestine Liberation Organisation from shell-pocked refugee camps in Lebanon. Iran's shah still ruled from his Peacock Throne, while in Iraq a young Saddam Hussein was plotting his path to power.

Riyadh's relationship with Saddam, which went from wary support during the Iran-Iraq war to fierce enmity after the invasion of Kuwait, dominated foreign policy for long periods during Prince Saud's tenure.

But despite that complicated history, Prince Saud publicly argued against the 2003 invasion, presciently warning of a chaotic aftermath that could destabilize the region.

"If change of regime comes with the destruction of Iraq, then you are solving one problem and creating five more problems," he said in a British television interview.

In 2002, he launched Abdullah's biggest foreign policy initiative, an Arab plan for peace with Israel in return for a withdrawal from all occupied land and a resolution of the refugee problem.

"All the neighborhood, if you will, will be at peace with Israel, will recognize their right to exist. If this doesn't provide security of Israel, I assure you the muzzle of a gun is not going to provide that security," he said at the time.

Israel never agreed to the plan and Prince Saud said frequently that the failure to help create a Palestinian state was the biggest disappointment of his career.