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Prince Salman: The Making of a Statesman | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In July 1929, renowned British historian Arnold Toynbee published an article entitled “A Problem of Arabian Statesmanship”, in which he highlighted the political unrest that was plaguing the Arabian Peninsula in the 1920s and how British interests had been harmed by the raids and wars that broke out between sectarian and tribal leaders. Toynbee attributed the crisis to the absence of a long-practiced statesman capable of rising above personal disputes and narrow interests; a political leader who could create harmony between the region’s cultures and traditions, and between the great powers in order to build a modern state.

However, Toynbee made an exception of King Abdulaziz Al Saud, for he was the only regional leader who possessed all the attributes required to fill the vacuum of leadership in the Arabian Peninsula. He said “Ibn Saud already ranks as one of the great statesmen of Arabian history.” Toynbee also drew our attention to the fact that because authors and analysts had focused only on the religious nature of King Abdulaziz’s state building project, they were unaware of other facts that were more significant than the religious aspect: the King’s political wisdom and grasp of the economy.

Although Toynbee believes that the religious factor was a principal reason for the survival of the Saudi state in its three phases, he attributes King Abdulaziz’s quick success to his primary qualifications as an elevated statesman in both politics and the economy. King Abdulaziz always sought to win over his opponents, rather than defeat them, and considered it is his duty to care for their economic interests in order to guarantee their loyalty. He reasoned that he should work to achieve a consensus among them, in order to ensure their unity within the boundaries of a modern civil state.

Today, it is a matter of necessity that we return to this history, as the past two decades have witnessed a proliferation of proposals and academic writings arguing that the “Saudi model” of rule and management of state and society does not fit modern requirements. The advocates of such an opinion, very likely, argue that Saudi society now is markedly different to the situation three or four decades ago, and so it should be subject to the requirements of social change, as has been the case in other countries of the region.

It was difficult to discuss this issue in the past because it had not been tested on the one hand, and because the pretext on which it leaned was inaccurate on the other. If it is true that Saudi society has changed, made advancements and achieved greater openness, then this must be thanks to the governing policies and state management over the past decades. In my opinion, over the past 80 years, the Saudi model of governance has proved its sold foundations and its firm roots, with regards to internal and external challenges ranging from World War II to the Cold War, the nationalist and Baathist expansions, and finally the War on Terrorism.

What is striking in the Saudi experience is that it has not declined at any stage; rather it has continually advanced politically and economically, in a reassuring and confident manner. Let us take the earthquake that hit the Arab region this year as an example. We saw how despotic regimes and presidents collapsed in spite of their security apparatuses and the abundant wealth they held in foreign banks, which were ultimately of no assistance. This is because the legitimacy of rule did not exist, and the relationship between rulers and citizens was inhumane.

Some Western and Arab writers hastened to warn of what could happen in Saudi Arabia, in comparison with other regimes. Yet what we saw was real cohesion and support for the legitimacy of Saudi rule. This does not mean that Saudi Arabia is a country not in need of permanent political reform, or one which is infallible. In fact, there were hard times, and mistakes were committed, and many ambitions and hopes in some regards may have been frustrated. However, the country’s political and economic history proves that in every challenge it faces, it can always overcome obstacles. Perhaps the main reason for this is that the Saudi ruling house is still capable of creating statesmen who can shoulder the responsibility and regional and international role that Saudi Arabia plays.

In this context, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz’s appointment of Prince Salman as Minister of Defense is a continuation of the policy of selecting only the most adept and the most proficient statesmen to undertake major duties. Prince Salman worked for over five decades as a statesman in charge of the construction and development of the Saudi capital city, during which Riyadh shifted into a modern capital to rival major international cities in terms of its expansion and organisation. Successive Saudi kings entrusted Prince Salman with roles and positions to perform, owing to his administrative and personal attributes as well as the respect and admiration he enjoys amongst his citizens. He is described as a man of wisdom and authority able to solve disputes, whilst also being known for his support to charitable and humanitarian initiatives.

Observers of political Saudi affairs will be aware of the extremely important issues that Prince Salman was entrusted to undertake for a substantial period, and the considerable individual relations he developed with political leaders and international figures with the aim of supporting the Kingdom’s interests and causes abroad.

However, what distinguishes Prince Salman in the eyes of the Saudi elite is that he is a statesman in the full sense of the word, and this will be reflected when he joins the Saudi Council of Ministers as the representative of one of the country’s most influential institutions. In addition to this, Prince Salman has a great historical and cultural acquaintance with the cultural and journalistic elite in Saudi Arabia, to the extent that he is considered an encyclopaedic frame of reference in both the history of the Saudi state and its statesmen.

Alongside Prince Salman’s record of great responsibilities and history of accomplishments, there is his elevated yet humble character that appears when dealing with any one, whether in a senior or modest position. When I embarked on my writing career, I published an article about an Arab political cause. I then received a message from Prince Salman himself, in which he encouraged me to carry on writing, and even sent me a book on the subject. On another occasion, I wrote an article in al-Riyadh newspaper detailing part of the history of King Fahd, may God rest his soul. Subsequently, I received a phone call from Mr. Turki al-Sudairi, Editor-in-Chief of al-Riyadh newspaper, who told me that His Excellency Prince Sultan had prepared a comment to be published on the same page. When published, the comment was extremely noble and polite, and began by thanking the writer for raising such an issue. Prince Salman’s comment also provided historical information to clarify the true story of what happened, all coming across in a fatherly manner.

Without a doubt, there are hundreds of Saudi citizens who have experienced similar situations with His Excellency Prince Salman. In fact, his continual contact with the problems and humanitarian conditions of his citizens provides significant evidence of the standing which this “statesman” enjoys amongst his people. Here we are not in the process of simply praising an official – although he deserves much praise – but it is necessary for a foreign observer to become acquainted with such basic aspects of the Saudi statesmen’s character, because sometimes they are not seen in the correct light.

If observers abroad are wondering about the significance of Prince Salman’s appointment in such an important post, and debate whether he is a conservative or a supporter of change, then the Saudi people must make it clear that “statesman” Salman Bin Abdulaziz has been in government for half a century to develop his country. He has inaugurated countless exhibitions in European capital cities since the 1980s, in order to reflect the civilized and humanitarian aspects of the Saudi people.

King Abdullah has proven to the world that Saudi political traditions are firm and deep-rooted. In fact, by appointing Prince Naif Bin Abdulaziz as Crown Prince, and Prince Salman as a Minister of Defense, King Abdullah has demonstrated that the ruling institute in Saudi Arabia has not dried up. Rather it is full of proficient statesmen who are able to promote the country both politically and economically.

Prince Salman, in a lecture entitled “The Historical and Intellectual Foundations of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” (29 March 2011) which he gave at the Islamic University in Medina, said “French historian Felix Mengin, who witnessed the fall of the first Saudi state, expected that it would be revived once again because of its historical and religious roots in the region. He wrote that ‘the same principles continue to exist, some signs of which have begun to reappear. Although the Al Saud family has been dispersed and chaos prevails amongst leaders, still there is a living bud, which time and events can make blossom once again'”

Here the Saudi bud has opened once again, and will blossom throughout the Arab Peninsula.