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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Saudi Arabia’s former spymaster aims to give centre influence

The King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies aims to help the world understand the kingdom, and also affect regional policy.
Employees of the Riyadh-based King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in the think tank's book binding room. Justin Vela/The National
Employees of the Riyadh-based King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in the think tank's book binding room. Justin Vela/The National

RIYADH // If there is one person whose public comments offer clues about what Saudi Arabia’s government is thinking it is former spy master Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud.

Prince Turki served for more than 20 years as head of the country’s intelligence agency, retiring only days before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Now, he is chairman of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies, a Riyadh-based think tank that aims to expand its influence on regional policy and also provide more insight into the kingdom.

The retired spy chief was not in Riyadh when The National visited earlier this month, but staff and analysts at the centre said his public comments reflect what the government is focused on.

“We at the centre don’t get enough of him unfortunately,” said Prince Faisal bin Saud bin Abdulmohsen, a scholar at the centre, smiling.

The centre is part of the King Faisal Foundation, which was set up in 1976 by the late monarch’s children. King Faisal was known for making important reforms in the kingdom including abolishing slavery and allowing women to attend school before he was assassinated by a relative in 1975.

Prince Faisal said he was proud that Saudi Arabia is pursuing a more independent foreign policy and hoped that the centre could assist with it.

The country has become “much more proactive, much more self-reliant and not necessarily waiting on allies that obviously have different objectives”, he said.

In the past three years, the board has mandated that the centre have more of an international presence. The goal is to “begin to affect policy based on public research”, he said, adding that they were “beginners” at such efforts. The centre’s analysts, some of whom have connections to government ministries, also make themselves available to journalists for interviews.

Though the centre is funded by trusts established by King Faisal’s children, it also conducts research on behalf of the government, including the ministry of foreign affairs, the ministry for promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice, and the interior ministry.

The centre also serves as a place for mainly foreign officials to meet Prince Turki and “provides closed sessions so people can speak very frankly and openly about things”, Prince Faisal said.

For example, this month the centre hosted a closed-door discussion on Russian and Saudi Arabian relations, with the Russian ambassador in attendance.

Prince Faisal said the model was based on the Chatham House Rule, under which participants at a meeting are free to use information received, but may not reveal the identities or affiliation of the speakers.

Hussein Yousef, a coordinator, assists scholars and researchers who are invited to the centre.

He joined the King Faisal Foundation 29 years ago, a year after it was founded, and transferred recently to the research centre. “We used to have more scholars, researchers, students,” he said, adding that the centre is currently hiring more researchers.

It is especially interested in people who focus on regional topics such as the Sunni-Shiite conflict. Another project is digitising histories of King Faisal.

Over the past three decades, the centre has hosted about 400 researchers. Some have taken on broad projects while others have delved into a single letter in the Arabic alphabet, Mr Yousef said.

While it is trying to increase its profile as a think tank, most people in Riyadh know the foundation as a library.

Visitor numbers have declined over the years: many of the books the library offers are now available on the internet. Only about 20 people visit per day now.

The library has built up a database of material that can be printed off or downloaded on to a USB stick or CD when scholars need specific research.

The database includes Arabic literature, studies on medicine, education, economy, and religion, along with dissertations. Women are also listed as a topic of study.

When requests for texts that are not reference book are made, a librarian taps the name into a computer and bookshelves, pressed together to save space in the room, open. A screen with numbers corresponding to specific shelves light up to assist the librarian in finding the book.

If a scholar arrives wanting a religious book not in the library, even if it is hundreds of years old, the foundation will do its best to procure at least a copy for them, even if the book is in another country. “Sometimes, helping the scholar is helping the heritage itself,” said Mr Yousef.

There is also an environment-controlled room full of centuries-old manuscripts, mainly Quran and Hadiths, in glass cases. Some copies of the Muslim holy book have footnotes written across them in flowing script. There are also metre-long Sufi scrolls. In total there are 15,000 original works and 26,000 individual titles, said Mr Yousef.

There are not only religious books. There is also a book on “female behaviour” written in Persian. And a 14-volume collection of books on Egypt commissioned in 1809 by the French government on how Egyptians at the time lived, worked, and farmed that includes prints of detailed zinc etchings.

The collection was procured, Mr Yousef said, when Prince Turki hired a company to attend an auction and bid until the books were won.

jvela@thenational.ae