Prince Sa’ud Al Faysal, who served as Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs for forty years, passed away on July 9, 2015. On April 18, 1984, he met with me—a young scholar who had not yet turned thirty—in his office in Riyadh. In remembrance of him, I am posting an adaptation from my travel narrative, Middle Eastern Sketches (1997), describing my meeting with him as well as how prophetic what he said to me then turned out to be.
Prince Sa’ud greeted me as I entered. He was a very tall man who spoke English perfectly. He, his assistant Khalid Jindan, and I were the only ones in the room.
Just recently, the new Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar, had had dinner with the Soviet ambassador, Anatoliy Dobrynin. There was much speculation that this presaged the imminent resumption of Saudi-Soviet diplomatic relations (there had been ties between them in the 1920s and 1930s, but not since then). I asked Prince Sa’ud if this was about to occur.
He shook his head and said, “We will only recognize Moscow if it meets certain conditions:
“First,” he began, “they must completely withdraw their armed forces from Afghanistan.” The Soviets had invaded that country in 1979 to prop up a Marxist regime there against its Muslim opponents.
“Second, they must end all hostile propaganda against Saudi Arabia.”
“Third, they must withdraw from Ethiopia and South Yemen.” Ethiopia was just across the Red Sea while South Yemen directly bordered on Saudi Arabia. Both had Marxist regimes and a large Soviet military presence.
“Fourth, there must be freedom for Muslims to practice their religion in the USSR.”
“But even if they meet all our conditions,” the prince added, “relations will not be restored automatically. There must also be the right psychological conditions. ”
When the prince said this in April 1984, it seemed as if he was setting conditions which he knew the Soviets would never meet. Saudi-Soviet relations, then, would never be re-established.
In September 1990, though, Prince Sa’ud went to Moscow and met with Eduard Shevardnadze (then the Soviet foreign minister). Saudi-Soviet relations were formally re-established.
By the time this happened, all the conditions which the prince told me that Moscow must meet either had been met or were just about to be. Moscow had long since ended its hostile propaganda against the kingdom. Soviet forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989. Moscow made no move to halt the self-liquidation of the Marxist regime in South Yemen and its merger under the leadership of non-Marxist North Yemen in May 1990. Moscow had considerably reduced its assistance to Marxist Ethiopia and would end it completely by January 1991 (the regime would be driven out of power a few months later).
In addition, by the time Prince Sa’ ud went to Moscow, Muslims were free to practice their religion in what was still the USSR. Much to Saudi dismay, Muslims in the USSR had become so free that a little later many of them would vigorously protest Soviet support for the American-led, UN-sponsored coalition formed to protect the kingdom and expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
And last but not least, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait apparently created the right “psychological conditions:” Riyadh was finally willing to restore diplomatic ties with the USSR in order to make sure Moscow voted its way on UN Security Council resolutions aimed at Iraq–which Moscow did.
Although it seemed impossible in 1984, the Soviets had fulfilled all the Saudi conditions for resuming relations by 1990.
After he listed these conditions back in 1984, I asked the prince whether he thought the Soviets would ever fulfill them.
He smiled and said, “It is in the hands of God.”