Burying an Elder

The death of Prince Saud Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia was not unexpected. He had endured a debilitating illness for quite some time and, as a result, had made several requests to his king to be relieved of his post as foreign minister. After his request was finally granted in April of this year, he led a private existence, though he continued to guide the foreign policy of his nation and the Middle East as an advisor to both the king and his own successor. So, while his death relieved him from a long and degenerative illness, it still comes as a great loss to the global community.

It's hard to imagine a diplomatic stage without Prince Saud quietly advocating on behalf of his country and the interests of the Arabs. His role and accomplishments as the longest-serving foreign minister in the world earned him a place in the annals of history. But, more than that, he was what the people of the desert would call an 'elder,' a man from whom many would seek advice.

Back in 2011, at the height of the Arab uprisings, my friend and colleague David Ignatius paid a visit to Prince Saud at his palace in Riyadh. When David asked him to give his perspective on the tumultuous sociopolitical landscape of the region, the prince offered the words of a sage man. "It is happening in different ways in different countries for different reasons," he said, as originally quoted in The Washington Post. He went on to observe that "the similarity...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." He simply concluded that the future of these nations was uncertain but that "whatever decision they take, it will be their decision."

Prince Saud was a man committed to civilian rights and, as such, despondent in his final years, referring to a litany of lost opportunities pursued in devoted service to his people. He passed away regretting that the Arab Peace Initiative that he worked tirelessly to push forward had not yet been adopted, believing fervently that it would have brought an end to decades of bloodshed between Arabs and Israelis. And, in his final moments, his heart continued to ache for the over four million Syrian refuges whose lives have been irreversibly damaged by war and the brutality of Bashar Al-Assad's government.

But, Prince Saud should be remembered not for his pangs of humanitarian guilt, but for his extraordinary legacy of success in the face of struggle. Today, and always, let's remember him as the architect of the Taif Accords that brought Lebanon out of its bloody civil war. Let's remember his valiant defense of the Syrian people at the Geneva II Conference and in the face of Vladimir Putin. And, let's remember him as our elder, our quiet but powerful advocate of stability in an unstable part of the world.

The tectonics of the world have shifted and the death of the prince will surely send shockwaves through the diplomatic community and on the global stage. The world at large will no longer be able to seek counsel from a wise man of the Arab World. As for the Arabs, we will bury an elder today.