Saudi Arabia's veteran foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal dies

Saudi Arabia's veteran foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal dies
Prince Saud al-Faisal died yesterday aged 75, the world's longest serving foreign minister. Faisal guided the kingdom through some of its most testing periods.
3 min read
10 July, 2015
Prince Saud al-Faisal was the world's longest serving foreign minister [AFP]

Saudi Arabia's former foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal died on Thursday aged 75.

Faisal was the world's longest-serving foreign minister spending four decades in the job before retiring in April citing "health reasons".

He was widely respected for his knowledge and experience of international relations, having overseen the transition of Saudi Arabia from a behind-the-scenes player into a regional powerhouse.

Barack Obama described Faisal as a "committed and accomplished diplomat" whose "legacy will be remembered around the world".

The Saudi royal court said Faisal was a "symbol of honesty and hard work".

Head diplomat

Faisal was instrumental in helping to guide Saudi foreign policy through some of the conservative monarchy's most testing times.

This included the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1970, the Palestinian intifada, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the US toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and the Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011.

One of the most testing moments for the foreign minister was the emergence of al-Qaeda headed by Saudi citizen Osama bin Laden.

Once an ally of Saudi Arabia during the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, bin Laden had been a key player in the Saudi-led mujahedeen resistance.

But the 11 September attacks by al-Qaeda on Riyadh's key ally the United States finally forced Saudi Arabia to publically divorce the extremist leader.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on the planes that hit the World Trade Centre and Pentagon were Saudi citizens and Riyadh's relationship with extremist groups and its ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology came under the spotlight.

Despite obvious strains, Faisal was credited with keeping strong ties with Washington. US ambassador to Riyadh Robert W Jordan said "he helped maintain the relationship with the US after 9/11 when it could have gone completely south", according to the New York Times.

Faisal was a strong supporter of the Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad, who are believed to have been armed and equipped by Saudi Arabia.

Modern challenges

However, Faisal has also had to deal with the emergence of the Islamic State group who now control huge swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, and have made their distain of the al-Saud dynasty clear.

Faisal led Saudi Arabia into the international coalition against the Islamic State group with air strikes against the extremists.

He has also combatted the seeming threat on his doorstep in Yemen, emanating from the Iranian-backed Houthi militia group and army brigades loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Despite the ferocious military campaign unleashed on Yemen, Faisal was viewed as less hawkish towards Iran than other princes in the royal court.

Last year he invited Iran's foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to Saudi Arabia and in his last public address as foreign minister this year stated "[Saudi Arabia] is not at war with Tehran".

Faisal was born in 1940, the son of Saudi Arabia's third king Faisal, until he was assassinated by his nephew in 1975.

He served as deputy oil minister under Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who was said to have taken the young prince "under his wing".

Faisal was known as a Eurocentric foreign minister, speaking fluent French and English and well-known for his pristine manners and smart suits.

He fathered six children, including one girl who is married to King Salman's son, Prince Sultan.

Mamoun Fandy, author of Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, said his death marks the end of an era as the elder royals move to shift power to younger princes.

"The history of Saudi foreign policy is al-Faisal, both him and his father," he said. "It's how the world knew Saudi Arabia, through al-Faisal."

No reason was given for Faisal's death, but he was said to have suffered from illness. Funeral prayers will be held for the prince in Riyadh, today.