Prince Turki Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia was in town to speak at an open forum at the College of William & Mary.
His visit to W&M was part of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Reves Center for International Studies. In his speech, the Prince, who for 23 years was the head of Saudi Arabia's General Intelligence Directorate, one of the most powerful positions in the government, reflected on the "Saudi Views on Today's Middle East."
He appeared in the traditional Arab outfit, the Kafiya, but the prince, who holds degrees from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Princeton, Cambridge and the University of London, projected a suave, man-of-the-world image. He spoke with perfect American-accented English, and during the question-and-answer segment spiced his replies with a healthy dose of humor.
Prince Turki Al-Faisal, of Saudi Arabia
The audience, consisting of students, faculty and local residents, packed the large Commonwealth Auditorium, wall-to-wall, and gave him a standing ovation.
Prince Turki was once called a combination of Lawrence of Arabia and Sen. George Aiken of Vermont. As chief of the Saudi CIA, he played a key role in funding and arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan. He helped them to defeat and expel the Soviet occupation forces.
"It was one of the most heroic struggles in modern history," Prince Turki said in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette. "Those tribesmen defeated a superpower and contributed to the collapse of communism and the demise of the Soviet Union."
While many of his actions made Prince Turki seen as Lawrence of Arabia, he was also compared to Vermont's longest serving senator, George Aiken. During the height of the Vietnam War, Sen. Aiken urged President Johnson, and later President Nixon, to simply declare "victory" and withdraw American forces from Vietnam.
So did Prince Turki. He urged President George W. Bush, twice, while serving as Saudi ambassador to the United States, to declare victory over the main elements of al-Qaeda and withdraw American forces from Afghanistan
I asked him, what would be his advice to the Obama administration.
"To make sure that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are crippled and kept in check. But withdraw most American forces, and let the Afghans themselves, including the Taliban, sort out their country's problems," he said.
"Saudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam, a religion that has an estimated 1.2 billion adherents. Saudi Arabia represents over 20 percent of the combined GDP of the Middle East, making it the economic engine of the region," he said in his sweeping overview of the national security challenges Saudi Arabia faces in a Middle East in turmoil.
He pointed out that Saudi Arabia firmly believes that peace in the region will only be achieved through cooperation that is built on trust, dialogue and engagement.
"This is why Saudi Arabia will continue to take the lead in negotiating between and with conflicting parties and nations," he said. "Furthermore, the kingdom firmly believes that the most vital security issue is progress through sustained economic development. There must be economic, political and social progress for the people and for the governments of the Middle East so that peace not conflict is clearly seen as the gateway to prosperity."
As chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, a foundation that invest in education in Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki is known to be a champion of providing solid education to the youth of his country.
"I am a firm believer that Saudis can succeed only through education," he was quoted saying.
I asked him what made him chose William & Mary as a venue for the open forum.
"Lois Critchfield. a member of the Reves Center Advisory Council, was the instigator," he said with a smile. "Her late husband, James Critchfield, a former high-ranking CIA official after retirement, became a highly valued adviser on development in our region. I just couldn't say no to Lois."
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.