At Home and Abroad: An Interview with Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud
For a member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud has spent much of his life outside of Saudi Arabia. At fourteen years old, he left his native Mecca to attend the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. He then moved to Washington, D.C., where he received a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University in 1968. Forty years later, Prince Turki was called upon to put his experience with American culture and politics to work when, in 2005, he was appointed by King Abdullah to serve as the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, a position he held for over a year.
Before entering into diplomacy, Prince Turki forged a career in politics and public service. While at Georgetown, a Jesuit Catholic university, he organized a campus-wide conference on Islam during his freshman year. After his graduation, he went on to study Islamic law and jurisprudence in post-graduate programs at Cambridge University and the University of London. In 1973, Prince Turki returned to Saudi Arabia, where he began working as an Advisor in the Royal Court in Riyadh.
In 1977, Prince Turki began working for the General Intelligence Directorate, Saudi Arabia’s mainforeign intelligence arm. After serving briefly asdeputy to Kamal Adham, Prince Turki stepped into his primary role as director general, a position he heldfor 23 years. After leaving the General Intelligence Directorate in September of 2001, Prince Turki moved to London to serve as the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom, where he remained until 2003.
Prince Turki returned to Washington, D.C. in July of 2005. In his role as ambassador, he presented his credentials to both Secretary of State Condoleeza Riceand President George W. Bush. While in America,Prince Turki traveled extensively, visiting 37 states and working to foster positive relationships between the United States and the Middle East.
Today, Prince Turki serves Saudi Arabia in a variety of capacities. Foremost among them is hisposition as founder of the King Faisal Foundation. In keeping with his passion for education, he sits aschairman of the foundation’s Center for Research and Islamic Studies as an advocate of education investmentin Saudi Arabia. For the past several years, he has also worked as a visiting professor at GeorgetownUniversity, visiting the United States frequently to lecture and travel.
Let’s talk about Saudi Arabia. What do you think are the most pressing domestic issues that Saudi Arabia faces at the moment?
Prince Turki: Well, Saudi Arabia has a lot of development issues. The Kingdom is a country of recent history, in terms of identity: in 1932 it became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and at that time there were very few natural resources, let alone human resources. With the discovery of oil in 1935, the Kingdom began to develop. And since then, it’s been a race for time; how quickly the government can implement development in terms of infrastructure, services, hospitalization, education, housing, roads, airports, and so on. We’re still doing that, because we have a growing population, since the availability of financial resources coming from the oil allowed us to maintain a habitable environment for the population. Historically, the Arabian Peninsula, since the last Ice Age, has never held a large population because of the lack of resources: no rivers, very few other water sources, underground or otherwise. People simply moved from the Peninsula outwards to the more fertile valleys of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley in India. For the first time in the history of Arabia, since the coming of the oil industry, that migration has been reversed. So we’re trying to catch up not only with a growing population, but with the people who are coming in to help with our development projects.
Lack of human resources was one of the main challenges for the Kingdom and still is, so education became a primary objective and concern of the government. It’s expanding exponentially, not just in the level of primary, secondary, and high school, but also the university. One of the main accomplishments, I think, of the Kingdom, has been the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which has expanded from the first few years of nearly 2,000 students with scholarships sent all over the world to now maybe 150,000 Saudi students. In this country alone, there are close to 70,000. There are a lot of Saudi students, both male and female, and so that is one challenge, the youth, and how to provide them with the skills and know-how to find their jobs and livelihoods, whether in the Kingdom or otherwise. Practically all Saudi students, in my experience—I was student on scholarship as well—have returned after they have finished their college education, so that is one positive factor in our favor, that having learned their skills and know-how, they go back to help in that development.
That is one of the internal issues. The other, of course, is the role of women in Saudi. As I mentioned to you, men and women share in our education system equally. I’ll rephrase that—the women surpass the men in their scholastic accomplishment, and I think that reversal is not only common in Saudi Arabia. The number of female graduates from universities exceeds that of male graduates, and their scholastic achievement is high. Finding jobs for women who graduate with these skills has been a social challenge for us. Because the government has decreed that all opportunities for women are open, it’s a matter of how a young lady will convince her parents or her husband—whoever is responsible, with her, for herself—to allow her to go out and work. I think the percentage of women in the labor force is between 15 and 20 percent, which is pretty low, but it is much better than it was ten years ago, when it was five percent. And the biggest employer is the government, in health services, in education, in the social services, because of the necessary engagement with families and with other women in those fields. But this is another challenge that we have to pursue progress in. Two years ago, the king named women to the Shura council, which is our parliament. And the year before that, women were enfranchised not only to vote in elections but also to be candidates for election, so in that aspect, there has been much progress as compared to a few years back.
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