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CNBC Transcript: Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabian Prince

Below is the transcript of a CNBC Exclusive interview with Saudi Arabian Prince Turki Al-Faisal. The interview was first broadcast on CNBC's Squawk Box Asia on 14 October 2019. If you choose to use anything, please attribute to CNBC and Hadley Gamble.

HADLEY GAMBLE: Your highness, thank you so much for joining CNBC.

PRINCE TURKI AL FAISAL: Pleasure to be back.

HADLEY: I want to kick off by asking you to take a step back, to 1977, and walk me through what was the situation between the Kingdom and Russia at that time.

PRINCE AL FAISAL: 1977 Russia was still the Soviet Union and it had expanded its presence in Africa and the Middle East exponentially, if you remember Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Angola they were all under the influence of the Soviet Union in one form or another, as was the People's Republic of Yemen in the Arabian peninsula, we were very much in an inimical mode, between the Kingdom and the Soviet Union, because of these events.

HADLEY: So, the map was very different…

PRINCE AL FAISAL: And because they were interfering in Arab affairs as well. A couple of years later, 1979, they invaded Afghanistan. That brought them much closer to the warm waters, which had been a Russian ambition since Tsar's times. Things looked very tenuous and uncertain, that time also President Carter was president, and the Iranian revolution erupted, 1978/79, the Shah was toppled, and the regime came to power that called for the downfall of all monarchy, that added to concern and uncertainty in the Kingdom. It was not a very auspicious sign for peace or security.

HADLEY: And at that time, you were head of Saudi Intelligence.

PRINCE AL FAISAL: I had just become head of Saudi Intelligence, in September 1977, and it was a time of course in the wake of the Ramadan War of 1973, the oil embargo on America in the same year, after that in November 1977, President Ssdad had declared his intention to go to Jerusalem, which really was a very surprising and startling development. He hadn't told anyone, made things more uncertain.

HADLEY: As head of Saudi Intelligence, how did you consider this expansionary tactic by the Russians?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: It was very concerning, very disturbing, following from Watergate in 1974 and the resignation of Nixon, the U.S. went into particularly in intel, in retreat, the committee in Congress proposed restrictions with intel in U.S., as a country that liaised strongly with the CIA, that curtailment of activity was very negative for our interests.

HADLEY: Do you feel that you were left in the dark at that time?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: Well not just us, all of the allies of the U.S. were pretty much on wait mode, to see what was going to happen with the U.S., that wait mode lasted until Reagan came into office we activated all of the security arrangements that had existed before.

HADLEY: Walk me through how you would consider the energy dynamic being tied directly to the geostrategic narrative, in the sense how closely are the cooperation that we see with oil prices whether it be OPEC and the U.S. or OPEC Plus with Russia, how closely does that tie to the geostrategic decisions we see playing out?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: You mean now?

HADLEY: Today, versus then…

PRINCE AL FAISAL: We are living in a time of much uncertainty, and there is a lot of fog around, no clarity, a lot of contradictions, a lot of negative and disconcerting developments. Situation in Syria, we really don't know where the United States is for example, is it in or is it out? And that's been the case not just since Trump but since Obama. You remember the 'red lines' of Obama, nothing coming through on that. Subsequently Mr. Trump's contradictory statements about removal of American forces etc. Iraq is in turmoil, there is a popular movement of unrest and complaint going on in Iraq; in Yemen the war continues and the Houthis continue to disregard any international agreements toward peace. Iran's very proactive intimidation whether by hitting tankers in the gulf or by sending missiles and pilotless drones to hit Saudi oil installations, so all of that is not very conducive to stability or security.

HADLEY: Is that a lack of leadership?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: I think so, I think that is true on a worldwide basis, not just in one area.

HADLEY: Are you surprised at how loath it seems the international community seems to be to hold Iran accountable for what we've now seen the U.S., Saudi Arabia and European countries like Germany, they now say Iran was responsible for the attacks on Aramco. Is it surprising to you that the international community hasn't done more?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: Well, not really because they have been in that state for some time now. And I will give you an example. The war in Yemen for example. (U.N.) Security Council Resolutions specify an embargo of weapons supplies to the Houthis. Iran continues to supply weapons to Houthis since the war started and yet no body has done anything to sanction Iran on that. Syria, there is an embargo on Syria, whether it is on oil, Iran has been supplying Syria with oil since 2011, and yet Europeans and other countries has not sanctioned Iran for that.

HADLEY: Why are they so afraid?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: I don't know, to me it is startling, they admit that Iran is not only a security risk and danger but also they publicly declare so as you mention, European countries publicly declare Iran was responsible for Aramco attack and yet they do nothing. Iran has not hesitated to attempt assassination in Europe, in Germany, in Austria, France, Belgium, with Iranian diplomats caught in the act. Denmark was a victim but did take action, and I think broke relation with Iran, but the rest of European countries accept that Iran has a free hand to undermine security in the rest of the world.

HADLEY: Who's at fault here for the situation we see across the region today, is it the failure of U.S. policy or does it go beyond that?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: It's more of an international lack of will to do the right thing. And so, for me it is a very disappointing and very disheartening development for Europe particularly, but also a little bit for the United States.

HADLEY: Your youth and early career was spent at the height of the Cold War, could you ever believe that this rapprochement the last few years between Russia and Saudi Arabia could have become a reality, as quickly as it has?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: It didn't appear so at that time. Things were really bad, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, relations between the Kingdom and Russia have grown and under Mr. Putin particularly, they have flourished. As you know the king visited Russia a few years ago, the Crown Prince has been two or three times to Russia, the last time Mr. Putin visited Saudi Arabia was during the late King Abdullah's reign, when he was president for the first time, so it has been a growing rapprochement between Russia and the Kingdom, and there has been an establishment of a joint fund to invest in both country's industrial developments.

HADLEY: Do you see Russia filling a vacuum in the region that the U.S. has left behind and is that a good thing for Saudi Arabia?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: I don't think so, in terms of a vacuum, America is still not out of the equation.

HADLEY: It starts to feel that way, though, especially when you see what's happening with the Kurds in Turkey.

PRINCE AL FAISAL: I know, yesterday I read in the news that there has been a deployment of American forces in Saudi Arabia to support Saudi Arabia in meeting the challenge of perhaps future attacks on oil installations.

HADLEY: Does it surprise you that they would support Saudi Arabia in terms of the energy situation and at the same time abandon longtime allies in Syria?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: Well, it's always been about energy, hasn't it, since 1945 when Mr. Roosevelt met with the late King Abdulaziz. And, in spite of what has been publicly declared as American independence from foreign oil, the oil market binds the world together and what happens in Saudi Arabia does not stay in Saudi Arabia. It has somehow an ability to affect other countries, so I am not surprised the U.S. would be interested in engaging with the Kingdom on defending the oil industry. It is surprising America would abandon her allies in Syria. That is something for Mr. Trump to decide.

HADLEY: How concerning do you find that?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: Very concerning of course, having worked with those people to meet the challenge of what I call 'fahesh' which means obscene in Arabic, describing Daesh, worked with them for years, and succeeded in meeting that challenge, to all of a sudden, fold up their tents and silently fade away, is I think, not the right thing to do.

HADLEY: When you look at the region today, concerns about Iran, Turkey, these are countries that have pretty good relations with the Russians. Where could that benefit the Kingdom in terms of the security, could Russia help in dialing back some of these tensions?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: I hope so, I hope Mr. Putin is aware of the risks and the negative impact of Iran's activities in the area, as well as Mr. Erdogan's regional ambitions. He's been a strange character that developed hegemonic inclinations. And so, if Mr. Putin could do something about that, it would be very helpful.

HADLEY: When you think about what we've seen over the last couple of days, an explosion of the Iranian tanker in the Red Sea, the folks in the Kingdom were surprised the tanker didn't follow traditional SOS maritime procedure, they were working very quickly to determine the environmental impact of what might have happened as a result of this explosion, how worrying do you find this uptick of explosions and violence?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: It is very worrying, and it stems from Iran's very adventurous and very malign ambitions in the area, I think this tanker incident is very much in line with what Iran has been doing, it wants to show that they are victims as well, when actually they are perpetrators. Whatever the reasons for the explosions people will find out. We have to identify what happened on that tanker, and how the maritime regulations were followed or not by the tanker crew. We will have to wait and see.

HADLEY: What is the greatest concern to you about the region today? Given your long and wide experience in intelligence, is it the rise of an organization like Daesh, is it the ISIS fighters escaping from prisons in Syria? Is it new alliances across the region? Russia and Saudi?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: I don't think we can give priority, in one danger over another. Terrorism has always been a danger. We have been a victim in terms of terrorism. People forget, since 60, 70s when so called plot were operating at that time, it was because of our close friendship with the U.S. Ironically, the Islamic groups have targeting Saudi because of close relationship with us too. Whether far left or far right targeting us, both for same reason. We have met that challenge. But the danger exists. If not Daesh, could be the son or grandson of Daesh. That is something that has to be dealt with on a world-wide basis. Equally important imminent danger is Iran's ambitions, you see their activity in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, with the Palestinians, in east Africa. I have read about Iranians being arrested in Latin America, or Iranian supporters in (inaudible). That is also worrying, but for me, the lack of clarity of the positions of world powers like the U.S., Europe, adds to concern and the weariness that I feel around the situation.

HADLEY: If you had to describe U.S. foreign policy in the region today in a couple of words, what would it be?

PRINCE AL FAISAL: I really can't. Those are a couple of words. [laughs] I can't.

HADLEY: Your highness thank you for joining CNBC.


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