In Defense of a Princess

The latest slurs by certain members of Congress on the name of Princess Haifa Al-Faisal, youngest daughter of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, are indications of just how low some political players are prepared to stoop.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., told the New York Times that he was little concerned about the accusations against his wife, explaining that he has lived in Washington long enough to understand the political game.

The Princess, herself, though is naturally upset, issuing the statement: “My father, King Faisal, was killed in a terrorist act in 1975. I find the accusations that I contributed funds to terrorists outrageous and completely irresponsible”.

For the Washington rumormongers and their more gullible followers, ignorance of the Arab world and its customs has never been more evident. Sections of the media have colluded too by offering forums to agenda-led individuals bent on expounding their implausible theories to a largely ill informed audience as to the nuances of Saudi culture.

The accusation that Princess Haifa would knowingly channel money to Al Queda hijackers Khaled Al-Midhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi is entirely ridiculous.

In the first instance, as we know only too well, Osama bin Laden’s greatest ambition is to overthrow the House of Saud, against which he holds a personal grudge. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and America have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship for decades, and it was in no way in the interests of the Al Sauds for those buildings in New York to topple.

Let’s be realistic here. Even if, by a huge stretch of the imagination, a high profile Saudi princess harbored a secret agenda and wished to aid enemies of the US, does anyone seriously envisage that she would risk her reputation by sending the modest sum of USD2000 a month to Al Queda members via unreliable third parties… and by cheque?

Surely, anyone who deliberately wanted to give a financial boost to terrorism would use untraceable bank notes, gems or gold, possibly the hawala system, not an official, up front payment over a four year period.

Further, we have been told over and over again that Osama bin Laden and his followers are in possession of substantial funds and that the hijackers themselves had access to large sums of Al Queda money. They even returned the ‘loose change’ to source by post before they did the dastardly deeds. The idea that they were in desperate need of a few thousand dollars, courtesy of Princess Haifa, would be laughable if it wasn’t so shamefully insulting.

As regards the other flawed premise that Princess Haifa should have investigated the female recipient of her generosity, neither the Princess nor any philanthropic individual or institution should be held accountable for where their charity ends up. This, taken to its logical conclusion, would mean that when we give to a hungry street dweller and that person uses our donation to buy crack cocaine we are guilty of propping up drug dealers.

Instead of condemning the Princess, we should be praising her for her humanitarian concern. It is certainly no fault of her own that, in this isolated incident, her good deeds backfired.

But the Princess is unlikely to be seeking praise, simply respect. She only did what her religion demands. One of the five pillars of Islam is Zakat, or the giving of alms. Many Saudi and Gulf sheikhas devote their lives to good works but these acts of kindness rarely get reported. I know of one in Dubai who many decades ago threw open the doors of her beach palace to orphans and abandoned babies where they are treated as members of the family.

The Saudi government too takes its charitable responsibilities very seriously and during the period 1973-93 donated 5.5 per cent of its GNP to overseas aid. On the Saudi government’s official website is written: ‘there is an interdependence, both moral and economic, between rich nations and poor’.

Over the years Saudi Arabia has given away mini fortunes for international drought relief, post-earthquake reconstruction, and to both the World Food Program and the Program for River Blindness.

Anyone who takes the trouble to do a web search will find thousands of mosques, hospitals and schools around the world, which have been built with Saudi and Gulf finance or interest-free long-term loans.

More than that, there is a tradition of helping out the poor and needy by wealthy individuals in both Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region. Many Gulf sheikhs hold a Friday majlis (or informal get together) where nationals can go to request financial assistance for any emergency. They are rarely refused.

Saudi and other Gulf royals receive thousands of pleas for help each month from as far away as China, South East Asia, East Europe and Africa.

Just recently Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Crown Prince of Dubai, responded to an appeal from an Iraqi man whose wife had given birth to conjoined twins. He reacted by sending his personal aeroplane to collect the tiny brothers and bring them to Dubai where they were separated successfully at his own cost.

Even if we forget for a moment the humanitarian outlook of wealthy Arabs, it is true to say that even down to the poorest individual, Moslems can rarely pass a beggar in the street without digging deep into their pockets. And during Ramadan, mosques all over the Islamic world open their doors to the hungry throughout the month when daily post-fast iftar feasts are prepared. This is the case even in poorer countries such as Egypt.

Just a small example of the culture of giving ingrained in the psyche of Moslems which I personally witnessed: a Jordanian had been ripped off by people smugglers and ended up wandering around penniless in an area of Bangkok where Arabs congregate due to its plethora of restaurants serving Middle-Eastern cuisine.

Upon learning of the young man’s sad tale, it wasn’t long before his cousins from all over the Arab world banded together to purchase an airline ticket for him to return home, paid for his hotel room while he awaited the flight and even gave him a respectable sum of money with which to resume his life.

The man’s benefactors didn’t ask questions. For all they knew, the Jordanian could have been a liar, a thief or even a terrorist but all they saw was a person in dire need.

Simply put, Westerners are being duped with regards to the intentions of Princess Haifa. When the sick wife of a Saudi national asked her for help, she responded as one human being to another. True, she didn’t send forth hordes of private investigators to ascertain whether the women and her request were legitimate. She only heard a call for help and answered in a way that, in a perfect world, we should all feel obliged to do.

It should further be taken into account that the Princess’s donations in question were made before September 11 when any thoughts of terrorism were on the backburner. Why should it have even occurred to Princess Haifa that her money would end up in the hands of hijackers?

Colin Powell, who is a long-term friend of the royal couple, has clearly indicated that the Princess is entirely blameless, echoed by others in the higher echelons of the American government. But this doesn’t stop the ugly snippets of ‘information’ being allowed to filter down in an attempt by certain malicious individuals to compromise the Saudi leadership.

Thanks to the Saudis the US has enjoyed the benefits of cheap oil for years, and its forces have been guests on Saudi soil. This is no way to treat a friend even if Saudi Arabia is not prepared to be involved on any future attack on Iraq. Even friends have the right to say a firm but polite ‘no’ when the affirmative would mean a negation of their own belief system and an affront to their conscience.

The Bush administration must understand that even if America is the superpower it cannot always get its own way and to attempt to do so by smearing innocent individuals like Princess Haifa is not only below the belt but also reflects badly on its own reputation of being a just and decent society.

But America could have a lot more to lose than its reputation here. The attacks on the princess amount to another nail in the coffin of worsening . relations. Racial profiling at America’s entry points and the mass imprisonment of Moslem suspects in the US has already angered the Arab world, leading to the pull out of Arab students from American universities and a drop in Arab patronage of U.S. medical facilities.

Indeed, billionaire Saudi entrepreneur Prince Al Waleed bin Talal – who after donating USD10 million to the victims of 9-11 was himself snubbed by the former Mayor of New York – recently told The Times of London that there could shortly be a massive upcoming transfer of private Saudi funds out of the US.

President Bush and his colleagues, currently juggling with a fragile economy, would surely do well to take note. The Saudis can see through the game of ‘good cop, bad cop’ currently being played out by members of the administration and the Senate and could well reach the point of enough is enough. How this could affect the US economy and what the ripple effect would be for the rest of the world is anyone’s guess. Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.

Linda Heard is a writer, editor and Arabist, who has lived and worked for most of her life in the Middle East.

She can be reached at: