Nobody can accuse Saudi Arabia of 'overreaching,' says former intelligence chief

  • Prince Turki al Faisal rejected criticism that the country was overreaching in its regional activities
  • He instead pointed to Iran, noting the presence of Iranian-backed militants in conflict zones like Syria and Iraq

The former chief of Saudi Arabia's intelligence services gave a full-throated defense of his country's foreign policy Monday, speaking to CNBC at the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Prince Turki al Faisal, who ran the Saudi kingdom's intelligence agency from 1979 to 2001 and is an influential member of the Saudi royal family, rejected criticism that the country was overreaching in its regional activities. He instead pointed to Iran, noting the presence of Iranian-backed militants in conflict zones like Syria and Iraq.

"It is not Saudi Arabia that is sending troops to other countries like Iran is doing in Syria for example, and Iraq and even in Yemen. It is not Saudi Arabia that is instigating sectarian violence in any country, it is not Saudi Arabia that is recruiting militias from Afghanistan and Pakistan and wherever else to fight in Syria and Iraq and so on. So I don't see how people can accuse Saudi Arabia of overreaching," he said.

The comments come against the backdrop of historically high tensions between the Sunni kingdom and its Shia arch-rival Iran. The two have rival interests and alliances across the Middle East, from Syria to Lebanon, Yemen to Qatar. Regional conflicts in these countries often see Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran supporting different factions that are frequently split down religious lines.

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Win McNamee | Getty Images

Saudi and Western security officials have warned of a "Shia crescent" forming across major Middle Eastern flashpoints Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Yemeni capital Sana'a as Iran pours funding and arms into proxy groups and political and militant activity around the region.

"What we are trying to do is defend our interests, and meet these extraordinarily adventurous and reckless activities of Iran in its very across-the-border attitude in these hot places," al Faisal concluded.

Saudi Arabia has been condemned by a number of governments and human rights organizations for its military intervention in Yemen, where it has led a bombing offensive against the country's Houthi rebels since 2015 to influence the outcome of the impoverished country's civil war. The ensuing violence has resulted in more than 10,000 deaths and widespread starvation and disease, according to the United Nations.

—CNBC's Holly Ellyatt contributed to this report.