In Sarasota, Turki al-Faisal, a member of the country's royal family, talks of the mutual interests of the United States and the kingdom.

SARASOTA — Acknowledging his venue at First United Methodist Church, former Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States and royal family member Turki al-Faisal opened his remarks Tuesday with a reading from the Quran. It was from the surah, or chapter, concerning Jesus’ mother Mary, in which the Quran portrays the child as a prophet and a “servant of God.”

“So ladies and gentlemen, as you can see,” al-Faisal told a packed house after finishing the verses, “I believe we have much in common.”

In fact, the eighth and youngest son of the late patriarch Faisal bin Abdulaziz al Saud spent much of his hourlong address to the Sarasota Institute of Lifetime Learning audience stressing the deep and historic ties between America and Saudi Arabia. And, as part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 policy to wean its economy away from oil-heavy revenues, al-Faisal told listeners travel restrictions were being lifted, and he invited them to explore his country.

Omitted from his talking points, however, was the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist and Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Although the Saudi government has arrested more than a dozen suspects and trials are underway, Turkey alleges that Crown Mohammed bin Salman sent a death squad to silence Khashoggi, a persistent critic of the regime.

Backstage, al-Faisal said he had no reason to doubt the kingdom’s assertion that Khashoggi was slain by “rogue” elements.

“I think exactly as the government has put out,” said al-Faisal, “is that this group of people who went there presumably to convince him to come back to the kingdom had taken things into their hands and killed him. This is, of course, speculation, because they still have to prove that in court.

“The government is not there to murder people,” said one of Saudi Arabia’s former key diplomats, who also served as ambassador to Ireland and the United Kingdom. “It does not have a history of that, and not only is it against the law, it is against the human nature of any leadership to sanction the murder of any of the citizens of the country.”

Sarasota questions

For 24 years, the American-educated al-Faisal also was the director general of Saudi Arabia’s foreign intelligence service. Following the speech, he said he was unaware of the enduring legal controversies involving Sarasota’s connections to the 9/11 terror attacks.

“What I know is the commission report that was made about 9/11, which came out and was published,” said al-Faisal, who also spoke in Venice, where three of the pilot hijackers lived and learned to fly. “And I remember a few years ago when the so-called sequestered pages were equally released. That’s all I know.

“I have no idea what Mr. Ghazzawi has to do with this or that, or if he had anything to do with that, other than what was published in all of the texts that I’ve seen published in the paper.”

Al-Faisal’s first reference was to the declassification in 2016 of the 28-page summary of the “Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001,” prepared in 2003 for select committees on intelligence for the House and Senate.

The summary, in which the FBI alleged the terrorists received financial support from some members of the Saudi government, including intelligence officers with ties to al-Qaeda, was released — with significant portions, names and sources still redacted — after more than a decade of legal pressure from 9/11 plaintiffs.

Among the more curious aspects of the continuing controversy is the role of wealthy Saudi entrepreneur Esam Ghazzawi, who purchased a home in Sarasota’s gated Prestancia community in the 1990s. Acting on tips by suspicious neighbors, local law enforcement and FBI agents descended upon the 3,300-square-foot home at 4224 Escondito Circle in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks, where it appeared the residents had fled in a hurry.

Sometime on or about Aug. 27, 2001, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation, Ghazzawi’s daughter Anoud, son-in-law Abdulaziz al-Hijji, and their two children abandoned the house and left behind three vehicles, a refrigerator full of food, fruit on the counter, mail on the table, furniture, and clothes in the closet, among other things. The family returned to the kingdom. The son of a Saudi diplomat, Ghazzawi was an advisor to the royal family.

In 2011, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, the online Florida Bulldog investigative journalism platform reported that Prestancia’s former security chief Larry Berberich and an unnamed counter-terrorism official had tied several of the hijacker pilots — including ringleader Mohamed Atta — to the al-Hijji residence using visitor logs, phone records, and license-plate photos from security cameras.

However, in 2016, Bulldog reporter Dan Christensen acquired a newly declassified FBI “Memorandum for the Record,” completed for the 9/11 Review Commission in 2014, which contradicted the FBI’s 2002 report that it had discovered “many connections” between Sarasota and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks.”

“The FBI did not obtain the gate records from the community because there was not a justified reason to believe there was a connection with the hijackers,” stated the memorandum. “There was no investigative belief or reason to obtain the records.”

With support from an incredulous former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the Senate committee looking into 9/11, the Florida Bulldog continues to press for an end to the records censorship.

It has an ongoing Freedom of Information Act suit against the Department of Justice and the FBI for access to more details on the Sarasota investigation. U.S. District Judge William Zloch, who has been reviewing some 80,000 related FBI documents in Fort Lauderdale since 2014. The Bulldog’s FOIA lawsuit for records pertaining to the FBI Review Commission’s efforts to discredit its own 9/11 findings in 2002 is awaiting a ruling in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Around the Middle East

Meanwhile, back in Sarasota on Tuesday, al-Faisal reminded SILL of the two nations’ mutual interests, with more than 100,000 Saudis living and studying in the U.S., and up to 35,000 Americans working in the kingdom.

During the question-and-answer session, he upbraided Israel for not responding to the Saudi-driven Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, and said its best hope was for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lose power in upcoming elections.

He also blamed Iran for the ongoing war in Yemen, opposed the formation of a Kurdish state — stating that the ethnic group’s issues “can be dealt with within the framework” of national boundaries in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq” — and said the Sunni-Shia rift was more political than doctrinaire, with tensions inflamed by an expansionist Iran. Al-Faisal also supported an enduring Saudi monarchy over democracy.

“Without stability,” he said, “you cannot have progress. If we become like the other countries that went through revolutionary upheaval, whether in the Arab world or in other parts of the world, you can never have progress.”