David Ignatius
David Ignatius
Opinion Writer

Seeking counsel from a wise man of the Arab world

Prince Saud al-Faisal is the world’s longest-serving foreign minister.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia

Spring is a distant memory now, including here in the Arab world. It’s harvest time, and people give thanks for what they’ve reaped in the hope that it will carry them through the long and chilly months ahead.

David Ignatius

Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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I think of these seasonal facts of life as I watch the television reports of chaos in the streets of Egypt and Syria, as revolutions struggle to be born. In this part of the world, the feast celebration is the Muslim religious holiday known as the Eid al-Adha, which came a few weeks ago, but the spirit lingers this Thanksgiving weekend.

For a regular visitor to the Middle East, this was a year that brought moments of joy, watching the exuberant affirmation of freedom and dignity in the streets, and also, frankly, of dread — that these passions will evolve into a darker mosaic of intolerance and insecurity.

I don’t know which outcome is ahead. That uncertainty is one reason I am glad that President Obama is pursuing a cautious policy — hoping for the best and supporting the good guys when he can, but also trying to hedge against more dangerous outcomes.

Thanksgiving is a time, too, when we listen to the elders gathered around our table, the people who’ve been through countless springs and winters and, if they’re wise, see things with consequent clarity. Several of these elders in the Arab world are missing this year — some deservedly so, as in the case of Egypt’s deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, who imagined he could rule Egypt like a king.

But there are some wise, older voices left, and they deserve a hearing. So listen for a moment to Prince Saud al-Faisal, the 71-year-old Saudi foreign minister. He’s had that post since 1975 and is the world’s longest-serving foreign minister.

I met Saud at his palace here a week ago, and it was a poignant visit: The prince has Parkinson’s disease, and his hands and voice tremble slightly. Though his body is frail, his Princeton-educated intellect remains sharp: This was the most interesting of our many conversations over the years.

I asked Saud to help me understand the Arab Spring and where it’s going. Many Saudis think it’s a disaster that will wind up empowering the Muslim Brotherhood, but the prince gave a more sympathetic view.

“It is a great transformation in the Arab world,” he said. “It is happening in different ways in different countries for different reasons. I think the similarity in these cases is a lack of attention to the will of the people by the governing bodies, and an assumption that they can go on neglecting the will of the people because they control the situation. But you can never avoid what the people want, no matter what government you have.

“One doesn’t know what will result from these revolutions,” Saud continued. “A revolution can turn out well: In America, it was a good revolution. But in France, it brought the Reign of Terror. What will happen in our part of the world?” Saud reflected for a moment, and then said: “Whatever decision they take, it will be their decision.”

I think Saud captured the most positive factor I have seen in my travels this year. The Arab people are writing their own narrative for once. They are not victims of domestic dictators or foreign powers. They own their future, for good or ill.

And what of Saudi Arabia’s political future? How does the Arab world’s richest and most conservative regime fit with this era of change? Here, Saud was measured: “We will listen to our people and develop accordingly,” he said. “We are developing, maybe not as quick as a revolution, but we are developing in a way that’s stable.”

Saud has the regal ways of a Bedouin prince, tall and thin, with an ascetic face that masks the spark in his eyes. I always wondered if I might see him in Jerusalem someday, at the head of an Arab peace delegation. That’s probably not to be, even though the Saudis have offered a plan that recognizes Israel in return for a Palestinian state. The peace clock never seems to tick past midnight to a new day.

Listen around the global table this Thanksgiving weekend — yes, to the clamor and confusion, but also to the voices of people who understand that while change is desirable, it’s also time to store up the civility and tolerance that will help get this region through the coming Arab winter.

davidignatius@washpost.com

 
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