Dickey Talks to Saudi's al-Faisal

In a Middle East slipping from war to war, sometimes it seems only the old are truly impatient for peace. Certainly none is pushing harder than the octogenarian King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. His cause as crown prince in the 1990s and as reigning monarch since 2005 has been to settle as many disputes as he can in this region of clashing faiths, millennial rivalries and chronic conflagrations. They are all related, as he sees it, from Palestine to the price of oil, from Iraqi death squads to Iranian nukes to the risk of global recession, each cancroid problem feeding off the other.

To encourage peace Abdullah has been willing, literally, to go where no Saudi monarch has gone before. Just yesterday he visited the Vatican for an unprecedented meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, and this only a year after Benedict's remarks about the violent heritage of Islam provoked storms of angry protest in the Muslim world. For a Saudi ruler whose official title describes him as custodian of the two holiest shrines in Islam, this was no small gesture. And it's not inconceivable that some day Abdullah could walk the hallowed precincts of Jerusalem. But at his age that would have to be soon, and soon doesn't look likely. No wonder he's impatient.

To navigate the diplomatic channels, Abdullah relies on American-educated Prince Saud al-Faisal, 67, who has been Saudi Arabia's foreign minister since 1975. Saud too speaks in tones of world-weary, war-weary impatience. "It's 70 years that we have been talking about talks of peace," he told me the other night. "It's high time we talked about peace."

In an elegant townhouse on a quiet back street in Paris, Saud was taking a break from Abdullah's European tour last Sunday evening and bracing for next week's summit of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Riyadh. The prince wore his at-home clothes, bare-headed in a white thobe and sandals, but with a tailored sport coat to ward off the chill of a décor that was heavy on cold white marble. We've talked several times in the past, but the conversation this week summed up frustrations that would try the patience of any would-be peacemaker.

I asked Saud why, when American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is putting so much effort into convening a Middle East peace conference at Annapolis, Md., at the end of this month, the Saudis have been reluctant to lend their support. "We believe it is a dangerous thing to have the conference and fail," said Saud. There has been so much failure and so much disillusionment already.

If the foreign minister's confidence in the miracle-working abilities of the Bush administration seems low, there are reasons. In 2002, as Palestinian suicide bombings left Israelis terrorized and enraged, Abdullah rammed a resolution through an Arab summit in Beirut that offered Israel peace with the whole Arab world if the Jewish state would withdraw to its borders from before the 1967 war and allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland or compensate them if they did not. The demands were the same as those presented for decades in United Nations Security Council resolutions, but the peace dividend promised to Israel would be much greater than before.

The Bush administration, impatient back then to launch its war in Iraq, brushed the Saudi offer aside. Bush wanted to bring down the tyrant Saddam Hussein and remake the Middle East with shock and awe—which he did a year later, but not as intended. Iraq is now a failed state, oil prices have hit stratospheric levels, and the mullahs of Iran—enriched and emboldened—menace the whole Middle East with their radicalism and their potential nuclear power. Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza resulted in the election there of a radical Hamas government that wants to see Israel cease to exist. And Israel's ill-considered all-out attack on Lebanon last year, whatever the provocation, only strengthened the political power of Iranian-backed Hizbullah.

Rice's Annapolis conference is an attempt to pull some sort of order out of all that chaos, perhaps in the form of a de facto anti-Iranian front among the putative peacemakers. Neither Tehran nor its friends in Hamas have been invited. But as for concrete negotiations? "Annapolis is part of a process," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said yesterday. They're talking about talking again.

And, again, the Saudis' patience is strained. You ask a diplomat if he's setting preconditions and he'll usually say "No, that's what the other side is doing." But Prince Saud was pretty blunt on Sunday night. "The Israelis should stop building settlements" in the West Bank, he said. They should stop the building of the massive defensive wall constructed on Palestinian acreage. "It would be inconceivable to see discussion between the Palestinians and the Israelis about the return of territory and an ending of occupation at the same time the Israelis are acquiring more and more land," said Saud. "That is so self-evident that one could not consider it a condition."

Some Arab diplomatic sources say talks have taken place quietly between Livni and intermediaries for the Saudis. Is that true? "No," said Saud. "Nor are we planning to do that." If the Israelis do not want peace, he suggested, it's not up to the Saudis to convince them.

Of course, the Israelis might well doubt that the Saudis can deliver the whole Arab world, regardless of the proclamations at Arab summits. (Libyan dictator Muammar Kaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, told me last summer there was no way his father would fall into line.)

"Not only will the Arab countries go along, but the Islamic countries will go along too, with the Arab peace plan," Saud insisted.

"Do you think the Iranians will go along with that peace plan?" I asked.

"Well, the Iranians are a special case," said Saud, smiling ruefully and shaking his head.

Then, seriously: "They cannot prevent peace if the Israelis agree, nor will they change the situation if peace is made."

The problem is that nothing the Saudis say publicly comes close to explaining why the Iranians would back off. What threats and what promises are at play? Riyadh will stand up to Tehran—but how? At times the Saudis use the background threat of an American attack on Iran in their rhetoric while flatly opposing an actual military operation.

"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," said Saud. "They can either play that role or be a country that brings violence and destruction to our region, and we hope they avoid that. We talk to them as openly as we talk to anybody: we tell them of our anxiety, our fear of where they are going [with nuclear enrichment], 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. We are neighbors. They are not going to move and we are not going to move. We have to reach accommodation. We hope they will also play a positive role in preventing the differences between the Sunnis and Shiites which are growing in Iraq."

"Well, yes," I said, perhaps a little impatient myself. "I know you hope all these things, but if I were, oh, Vice President Dick Cheney, I would say, 'Yeah, that's what you hope for, but none of that is happening. The Iranians are getting worse on every front: they are more aggressive on uranium enrichment; they are more aggressive in trying to seize regional leadership. They are more aggressive in supporting the Shiite fundamentalists in Iraq and—'"

"We stand firmly against all this," said the prince.

"But do you see any signs of encouragement?"

"We see that when we talk to them seriously they listen. And in terms of interfering in Arab affairs, all the Arab countries are disturbed about it, and [the Iranians] have to think twice before they continue on these lines."

"Do you see any signs that they are thinking twice?"

"We just had a meeting about Iraq [in Istanbul with Iraq's neighbors] in which this issue of involvement of Iran in Iraq was brought to the fore, and 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. [The Iranians] said they had 4 million of them that they were willing to send back to Iraq. Of course, this was refused outright."

Not exactly realistic, I suggested.

"But very antagonistic," said the prince.

"So if they continue to be antagonistic what do you think will happen?"

"The Arab countries will defend themselves."

"And do you think the Americans and the Israelis will defend their interests by attacking Iran?"

"I don't know if their interests would be in attacking Iran."

"But they may think so."

"We think the way to do it is through the frank talk that we have with Iran to show that their interest is not in antagonistic positions," said the prince.

"And if that fails?"

"Then how can I speculate about it?"

"You're not making me feel better about the future stability of the region, Your Highness."

"Well, I'm trying to make me feel better about it. Because 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's not so tough, that it can't really hit back at Israel, it can't really hit back at the United States. The Iranians could hit at Saudi Arabia, couldn't they?"

"Well, I think that's more important than hitting Israel."

"Well, yes, 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?"

A rhetorical question, of course. With the price of oil already threatening to break through the $100-a-barrel threshold, and gasoline at the pump averaging more than $3 a gallon in the United States, there's the potential for prices to go a whole lot higher, bringing on global recession, or worse. But you can see why the Israelis, thinking about their own existence, perhaps, might feel their own patience is strained.

Me, I wish Condi luck, and patience, in Annapolis.