By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 14, 2006
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The coffee was served, then the dates. And at that, Prince Talal, the son of Saudi Arabia's founder and long the ruling family's bete noire, smiled wryly. "This is what we used to live on," he said, "dates and camel's milk."
It was his way of saying: To look ahead, sometimes we need to look back.
Talal is 75 now, still tall and formidable, with a glimmer of defiance as he smoked a cigarette, cautiously doled out by an aide. But humbled by back pain, he is a shadow of the man once known as Saudi Arabia's "Red Prince." The color represented his politics, a leftist bent that as a young man turned him against the ruling Saud family, shook the kingdom and led him into exile in Lebanon and Egypt.
His voice is softer these days, mellowed perhaps by failure, but the words about his family remain remarkably the same.
"Here, the family is the master and the ruler," he said of his brothers and cousins, as he sat at Fakhariya Palace. "This style can't continue the same way. There has to be change in the nature of authority, if things are going to change in the kingdom itself."
Talal is many things: for 50 years, the most liberal figure in a family that remains the most conservative and traditional of the Persian Gulf's monarchies and tribal dynasties; a philanthropist who brings a ruthlessness to business that he once saved for politics; a glimmer of light for the kingdom's liberals, many of whom acknowledge that change here will probably only come under the auspices of religion and its modernization, not through the secular talk of civil society and individual rights.
Perhaps most compelling, though, is that Talal takes a debate about democratic reform in the Arab world, defined lately by the Bush administration, and illustrates a broader, more enduring context, one that speaks to experience rather than promise. His calls for change are little different than in the 1950s and '60s, when he was dismissed as a communist sympathizer; he remains a critic of U.S. policy, citing Iraq's trauma as the latest example. To Talal, the battle itself is not new, only the players. And in his words are a sense of vindication for ideas he believes are no less crucial today.
"The world has changed, not me," he said. "History has proved the rightness of what I was talking about."
"Some of the members of the family were against those ideas," he added. "Now they're talking about them."
These days, Talal advocates a constitution that would bind an absolute monarchy by law, "a social contract between the ruler and those who are ruled." The parliament, now an appointed, relatively toothless body known as the Consultative Council, would be at least partially elected, with the right to oversee the budget, monitor the government and question ministers, he said.
Women? "Right now, we have more than 2 million female students," he said, shaking his head. "When they graduate, where are they going to go? Either you close the schools and leave them to illiteracy or you grant them an opportunity to work."
He laughed. "Can you imagine, can anyone imagine, that women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia?" he said.
His list went on: Progress is impeded by "the opposition of religious extremists." The religious establishment, long the allies of his family, should stand aside as the country forges a division of power -- judicial, executive and legislative. Along the way, the kingdom, he said, must determine the mechanism of passing the monarchy from the aging sons of the country's founder to their grandsons before simmering rivalries between the branches of the House of Saud flare into the open.
"The goal remains the same," he said, "the participation of people in forming opinions and making decisions."
The same words, a different era: "Now we're freed from the notion of the Red Prince, the name the Americans gave me."
Talal was reputed to be the favorite son of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the desert warrior who fielded a puritanical army in his conquest of much of the Arabian Peninsula between 1902 and 1925. He became in king in 1932, eventually siring Talal and 35 other recognized heirs, the descendants of an array of marriages that cemented his connections with the country's fractious tribes. Talal's mother was a servant -- some say of Circassian origins, others say Armenian -- who, it is said, eventually became his favorite wife.
Talal was among the savvier of the children, spending time in Beirut, where he married Mona al-Solh, the daughter of Lebanon's first post-independence prime minister. (One of their children, Walid bin Talal, is a billionaire Saudi investor.) For Talal, Lebanon was an introduction to pan-Arab aspirations, espoused by the leading Solh family, and was a taste of the emerging cosmopolitanism of Beirut.
The years after the king's death in 1953 were unsettled. Power was inherited by his eldest son, Saud ibn Abdul Aziz, a spendthrift more adept at showering largesse on the tribes than administering the country. His brothers soon contested his rule, and Talal navigated the rivalries for influence. Early on, the present Saudi king, Abdullah, was an ally, and in time as a minister, Talal began pushing for reform -- a constitution, elections, a parliament and free press. Together, he and his allies became known as the "Free Princes," a name taken from the Free Officers that overthrew Egypt's monarchy in 1952 and were eventually led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
He admits now to moving too fast.
"We were too young," he said. "We wanted 100 percent, but if we took 50, even 60 percent, we would have been blessed."
King Saud rejected the idea of a constitution, and Talal bitterly criticized the decision in statements to Egyptian and Lebanese newspapers. When Talal went for vacation in Beirut in 1961, the king moved against him, declaring him persona non grata.
He recalled the confrontation at the Saudi Embassy in Beirut as the ambassador asked him and his brothers to turn over their travel documents: "I said, 'Why?' He said, 'I don't have reasons, it's the order of King Saud.' I said, 'If the passport is the property of Saud, go ahead. If the passport is the property of the kingdom, then I have every right to keep it.' And I gave him the passport."
Against his better judgment, Talal and four brothers sought help in 1962 from Nasser, who had electrified a generation with promises of Arab unity, the liberation of Palestine and denunciations of regimes he deemed regressive, Saudi Arabia among them. Unlike most of the Saudi royal family, Talal was enamored with the Egyptian president -- he feels the same today, he said -- but he feared being exploited.
"I said to Nasser, we came here just for the passports because we want to go to Lebanon. I didn't want to stay with him. I knew his policy. I knew his way of thinking," Talal said. "He told me, 'I'll give you 500 passports.' "
The passports didn't come for two months. In the meantime, Talal spoke on the Voice of the Arabs, a Cairo-based radio station that often carried Nasser's stentorian voice. The speeches -- denouncing Saudi Arabia's rulers and calling for democratic reform -- solidified his reputation as the Red Prince. It would be another two years before he returned to Saudi Arabia.
For years, Talal remained silent, amassing a fortune and running a philanthropy. But in past years, he has begun pressing the issue of reform again, often from Fakhariya Palace. To him, the family can bring about change by redefining its role.
"In the 21st century, the king should be the guardian of the law, but the laws and legislation should come from the people, and the people should elect the members of the parliament," Talal said, sitting next to a rendering of the family tree.
He retains his suspicion of U.S. intentions. He traveled last week to Egypt, speaking at the American University of Cairo. He was relaxed, in a crisp, dark suit and maroon tie. At one point, he urged women in the audience to ask questions. As he did 45 years ago, he tried to distance his country's needs for reform from U.S. policy in the region.
"Does America want direct and transparent elections that allow the people to make their own decisions in choosing who will be in power?" Talal said, in reference to the success of Islamic activists in recent elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories. "Or are we tailoring elections to the United States that serve American interests?"
In the mercurial politics of the House of Saud, Talal's role is debated. He is a member of the family council, a body of 18 influential members drawn from Abdul Aziz's sons and grandsons and other branches of the family. Some say he has the ear of Abdullah, and his son, Prince Turki, says he talks to the king weekly. That gives the country's small coterie of liberals hope.
"It's going in his direction. He was just 40 years too early," said Beshr Bekheet, an economist and candidate in last year's municipal elections.
Others discount any special influence, and in private, some princes are especially venomous about Talal's past. As a liberal in a country where the monarchy claims authority through religious legitimization, Talal remains a maverick.
"Even a cleric -- an outspoken but a minor one -- would command more attention from the government than he would," said Adel al-Toraifi, a Saudi writer and newspaper columnist.
Talal, a little hard of hearing, doesn't claim influence. To describe the king these days, he quoted a description of a U.S. president before and after he took power. "He was simple before he was president. But as president, he's become a peacock."
At the end of his story, Talal posed for a picture. He decided to don his traditional white headdress, reluctantly. Tradition still doesn't sit well.
"I hate to wear this," he said.
Special correspondent Lindsay Wise in Cairo contributed to this report.