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Saudi Arabia Needs to Confront Its Role in Sept. 11, Prince Says

Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of the king and an advocate for change, asserts the country also must accelerate social and political reforms.

November 18, 2003|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, an influential nephew of the king and one of the world's richest men, says his country must accelerate social, political and economic reforms and better confront the causes of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"You have to ask the simple question. Why 15 Saudis? You can't just say it happened by coincidence," Alwaleed said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, referring to the 15 Saudis among the 19 hijackers in the attacks on New York and Washington. "Clearly, there's something wrong with the way of thinking here, with the way people are raised."

Until recently, he said, many in Saudi society had been nurturing other theories about the attacks.

"They were trying to come up with these conspiracy theories or that maybe Israel was behind it or some other Jewish organization," he said in the interview at a hilltop villa overlooking his 120-acre ranch on the outskirts of Riyadh, the capital. "It just doesn't make sense."

Alwaleed's remarks come as the Saudi monarchy is facing mounting demands at home for democratic reforms. In addition, the U.S. government is pressuring Saudi leaders to crack down on extremist groups within the kingdom.

Only last week, a suicide bomber attacked a residential compound near the diplomatic quarters here, killing nearly 20 people and injuring 122. Most of the victims were Lebanese and Egyptians. In May, a similar bombing targeting a housing complex where foreigners lived claimed 35 lives, including nine attackers.

Both attacks were blamed on Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. They were intended to "topple the royal family," said Alwaleed, who -- surrounded by his palace entourage -- drank cup after cup of tea and spicy Arabic coffee during the interview.

The 47-year-old prince has become one of the most outspoken advocates of reform within the traditionally conservative House of Saud, which has ruled this oil-rich nation since 1932.

"It's very important for moderate people in the Arab Islamic world to have their voice heard," he said. "We are not going to be silent anymore."

Alwaleed is not a disinterested party. His company has extensive real estate, financial and agricultural holdings that would benefit from a more open economy.

The billionaire is also eager to project a positive image of Saudi Arabia abroad, especially in the United States, where much of his wealth lies.

Known as the Warren Buffett of Arabia, Alwaleed's holdings have been valued at $20 billion and include significant shares in Citigroup, Euro Disney, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and Saks Fifth Avenue, among many others.

The Saudi government has taken some modest steps toward reform, such as authorizing limited elections at the municipal level and abandoning school teachings that promote hatred of Christians and Jews.

The Saudi royals have promised reforms before, most recently after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Some Saudis are skeptical that the latest proposals will bring meaningful change, citing a recent police arrest of 150 activists involved in a peaceful protest in Riyadh.

Alwaleed, however, insists that the royal family is committed to genuine reforms. "We have reached the point of no return," he said.

"We are very slow by nature and that's unfortunate. The members of the royal family who count and who are in government are, without any doubt, backing the reforms."

Alwaleed said he hopes the municipal polling will pave the way for elections for the majlis al shura, a national council appointed to advise the king.

Like other royals, Alwaleed favors granting women voting and other rights. Women are barred from voting, driving and traveling on their own.

"No verse in the Koran says women can't drive," Alwaleed said.

Economic changes also are needed, he said, to open the kingdom to foreign investment. The prince recently criticized the Oil Ministry's handling of several natural gas deals with foreign oil giants that fizzled in a dispute over terms.

The prince expressed similar views about the need for democratic reforms in an interview with an Arab newspaper last week.

"The prince was quite bold to call a spade a spade," said Khaled Maeena, editor of the Arab News, an English-language newspaper based in Jidda. "We have to come to grips with the problems that are on the ground here."

Alwaleed, who studied business at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., is the son of the kingdom's most famous reformer, Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, a brother of the current king.

Seeking to improve frayed relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States, Alwaleed said he has donated $15 million to support U.S. studies programs at the American universities in Cairo and Beirut. "I'm trying to convey the message of America to the Arab world," he said.

He also donated $500,000 last year to one of the most prominent Islamic organizations in the United States, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to support a project aimed at placing Islamic educational material in the nation's libraries.

His outspoken remarks have landed him in trouble before. In 2001, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani rejected Alwaleed's offer of a $10-million donation for victims of the World Trade Center bombing after the prince said U.S. policy in the Mideast was among the issues that led to the attack. The billionaire later said the mayor misunderstood him and that he deplored the attack.

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