Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister on Obama's Speech

The day after President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo offering a "new beginning" in relations between the United States and the Muslim world, NEWSWEEK'S Christopher Dickey sat down with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, to discuss the speech and its implications. Excerpts:

You've seen presidents–and promises for peace–come and go. Is there anything different about Obama?
We haven't tested this yet, but he showed sincerity in his talk. Different people came away with different impressions, but for me it was positive, balanced, comprehensive and many parts of it were very personal and touching. It hit the right tone from the opening salutation, Assalaamu alaykum, to the quote from the Qur'an at the end.

President Obama is very good at atmospherics.
But the key point was that America is changing policy. It is not the same America. He talked about humility, not power. He talked about democracy—that the United States wished the world to be democratic—but is not going to force the world to be democratic. If he was looking for converts to his way of thinking, I think he achieved it with the audience there, and with audiences everywhere in the Arab and Muslim world.

People were looking for concrete statements.
We told him this when we saw him before the speech. But we did not expect him to be so specific. He called Israeli settlements in the West Bank "not legitimate"—and this is more important, and stronger, than "not legal," which has often been repeated. He could have done more on atomic weapons, because proliferation is not going to resolve itself.

What are Arabs prepared to do now that Obama has come out so firmly against Israeli settlements?
The speech is one stage, but it has yet to be translated into actions. Arab countries have learned through 60 years of experience with Israel that it's not the agreement you reach with them; it's the implementation.

Now you have an American president who understands you, as you say. What is it you actually expect him to do to pressure Israel?
The United States has the means to persuade the Israelis to work for a peaceful settlement. It needs to tell them that if it is going to continue to help them, they must be reasonable and make reasonable concessions.

Should the United States cut off aid to Israel if it doesn't comply?
Why not? If you give aid to someone and they indiscriminately occupy other people's lands, you bear some responsibility.

I would be very frustrated if I were Obama having this conversation with you. You've got Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu saying he won't budge, and you saying "we made our offer. Take it or leave it."
What can we do more than that? The land that is occupied is in the hands of Israel. We don't have anything to offer Israel except normalization, and if we put that before the return of Arab land we are giving away the only chip in the hands of Arab countries.

When Obama talked about his commitment to religious freedom and women's rights, did you think he was pointing the finger at Saudi Arabia, which has none of the first and little of the second?
We don't mind talking about these things. We are moving in our reform process quite significantly—and indeed he mentioned Saudi Arabia in quite a positive light when he talked about King Abdullah's interfaith dialogue.

In Washington, much was made of the image of President Obama leaning down in front of king Abdullah when he first met him.
Yes, he bowed. But remember, he is also of a culture that respects age. It was not demeaning or servile bowing to somebody. When you see an older person, you respect him. I think those who made a fuss about it would do well to take such good manners to heart.