Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, flew out of Washington yesterday after informing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and his staff that he would be leaving the post after only 15 months on the job, according to U.S. officials and foreign envoys. There has been no formal announcement from the kingdom.
The abrupt departure is particularly striking because his predecessor, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, spent 22 years on the job. The Saudi ambassador is one of the most influential diplomatic positions in Washington and is arguably the most important overseas post for the oil-rich desert kingdom.
Turki, a long-serving former intelligence chief, told his staff yesterday afternoon that he wanted to spend more time with his family, according to Arab diplomats. Colleagues said they were shocked at the decision.
The exit — without the fanfare, parties and tributes that normally accompany a leading envoy’s departure, much less a public statement — comes as his brother, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the highly influential Saudi foreign minister, is ailing.
Saud, who was appointed in 1975, has held the position of foreign minister longer than any of his counterparts anywhere in the world — dating back to Henry Kissinger‘s tenure as secretary of state.
Saudi officials have not commented on Saud’s condition, but he has suffered from tremors for years. Last year, he slipped in the shower and fractured a shoulder. After attending the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in September, he flew to Los Angeles for surgery and quietly remained in the United States until shortly before Thanksgiving, according to an Arab official.
As Saud’s health has declined, Turki has increasingly been rumored as a possible replacement for his older brother. He would symbolize continuity in Saudi foreign policy at a moment of tension over Iraq between Riyadh and Washington, two long-standing allies in forging common political and economic policy in the Middle East. King Abdullah summoned Vice President Cheney after Thanksgiving for talks on Iraq and other Middle East flashpoints.
Turki has been the subject of both high praise and controversy. In the 1980s, while he was intelligence chief, he reportedly met al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden several times during the U.S.- and Saudi-backed support of mujaheddin fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He subsequently denounced bin Laden.
Turki later served as ambassador to Britain. “He was regarded as being one of the most effective ambassadors from any country and was held in very high regard,” a British diplomat said yesterday.
Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites and a predominantly Sunni country, has been deeply concerned about the change in the balance of power in Iraq, with which it shares a 500-mile border. Riyadh has been alarmed by the rise of the Shiite majority in Iraq and the marginalization of the traditional Sunni elite. Young Saudi men have joined the Sunni insurgency as foreign fighters, while there have been persistent reports that Saudi citizens have provided financial aid to the Sunni insurgency.
The kingdom announced earlier this year that it will build an elaborate barrier along the remote desert frontier, with ultraviolet night-vision cameras, underground sensor cables and command posts.
Turki, a 1968 graduate of Georgetown University, will return briefly in January after the Hajj pilgrimage, the busiest time of the year in the kingdom, to say formal goodbyes, according to an Arab official.