The Oil King’s Diplomat

This week Saudi Arabia hosts a summit of the Organization For The Petroleum Exporting Countries at a time when the cost of oil is soaring toward $100 a barrel, with tensions in Iraq and the Persian Gulf making matters worse. Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister for 32 years, is working to calm disputes that plague the region and threaten the global economy. He spoke last week with NEWSWEEK's Christopher Dickey. Excerpts:

DICKEY: A couple of years ago you said Saudi Arabia wanted to see oil in the $40 range. Well, we are way beyond that now.
SAUD: DON'T hold me to that.

All right, but where does Saudi Arabia want to see oil prices now?
You just proved that people shouldn't predict where oil prices will be. I really don't know. What we are working for is a stable oil price, but whether we can achieve that or not depends on many variables: what happens in such countries as China, what happens to peace in the Middle East, what happens with a possible confrontation in the gulf. And then you have the speculators. At a time when all other factors are predicting a decline in the price of oil, the speculators seem to be able to raise the price of oil.

Oil prices have given Iran a lot of money to underwrite its ambitions. Do you see any softening of Iran's position?
Even if they are looking to be leaders in the region they won't achieve leadership by pushing for confrontation—and it is by no means assured they will succeed in winning such a confrontation. So to sacrifice their future on such an issue as the atomic issue, we think, would not be something that is wise to do.

Some Americans say you want the U.S. to threaten Iran but not to attack Iran. Isn't that hard to balance?
Iran is a major country of the region and they have a role to play in the stability of the region—which we hope they will play. We talk to them as openly as we talk to anybody, we tell them of our anxiety, our fear of where they are going, and they continue to assure us that they are not going in the wrong direction in this regard. We have to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Any signs they are thinking twice?
We just had a meeting about Iraq [in Istanbul with its neighbors] in which this issue of involvement of Iran in Iraq was brought to the fore. We told them that this is unacceptable, that they must think before they jump into something that will bring them into confrontation with all the Arab world. And yet they came with a proposal for Iraq that would replace the forces of the Coalition with Iraqi people who were kicked out of Iraq by Saddam Hussein. They said they had 4 million of them and that they were willing to send them back to Iraq. Of course this was refused outright. Not realistic, but very antagonistic.

If they continue to be antagonistic what do you think will happen?
The Arab countries will defend themselves.

You're not making me feel better about stability in the Middle East, Your Highness.
Well, I'm trying to make me feel better about it. Just think of the consequences of military action around that small lake which is the gulf, which is the place where you have so much of the interests of the international community and its economy. And, God forbid, if violence happens there, what the consequences will be for the economy of the world.

Some Israeli analysts are saying Iran can't really hit back at Israel or the U.S. It could hit at Saudi Arabia, though, couldn't it?
Well, I think that's more important than hitting Israel.

Well, you would.
I think the Israelis should know that that is so. I mean what effect would a strike on Israel have on the international economy compared to what a strike on Saudi Arabia would have on the international economy?

Among those blowing themselves up in Iraq to destabilize the country, there are reportedly many Saudi citizens.
It's absolutely not true.

How do you see the situation in Pakistan since President Pervez Musharraf declared martial law?
Any instability in Pakistan is dangerous, although I think it is premature to make a judgment on it. We can't see where it is going now.

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