Analysis: Bandar’s return affirms hawkish turn in Saudi foreign policy
July 26, 2012 3 Comments
By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
For over two decades, America’s relations with its most important Arab ally were primarily mediated by just one man: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005. But on June 26, 2005, Bandar, a personal friend of the Bush family, submitted his diplomatic resignation, after being recalled to Riyadh by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. Almost immediately, Bandar, known for years in Washington’s diplomatic circles as a flamboyant socialite, disappeared from public view. It is said that he faced serious health problems, going in and out of hospitals. Others claim that he fell out of favor with Saudi Arabia’s autocratic ruling elite, and in 2009 there were even unconfirmed reports that he was under house arrest after allegedly trying to organize a military coup against King Abdullah. Last week, however, Bandar returned to the limelight in spectacular fashion: in a plainly worded statement, Saudi authorities announced that the Prince had been appointed Director General of the Mukhabarat Al A’amah, the Kingdom’s main intelligence agency.
To those who remember Bandar from his Washington days, which were filled with drinking and partying, it may seem incredible that the “peasant prince”, whose mother was one of Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s countless underage concubines, is now heading Saudi intelligence, in what is perhaps the most challenging period in the Kingdom’s history. But Bandar has mellowed in his old age (now in his mid-60s). Moreover, the political meaning of the Prince’s appointment is far more significant than the gossip about his partying antics in Western luxury hotel chains. According to David Ottaway, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and author of The King’s Messenger, a biography of Bandar, the Prince’s hawkish views fit perfectly with Saudi Arabia’s hardline foreign policy in the post-Arab-Spring era. Bandar “wants to see Saudi Arabia flex its muscles, particularly if the Americans are there with him”, says Ottaway. And chances are they will be, given the Prince’s close contacts in the US Intelligence Community. Rumor has it that, during the first George W. Bush administration, then-Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet got drunk at Bandar’s palatial Washington house and fell in the pool with his clothes on, at which point he was rescued by one of Bandar’s servants. If this story is true, it signifies an admittedly quite disturbing degree of comfort in the Prince’s relationship with the American foreign policy establishment, which Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly rely on in the coming years.
Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi says that Bandar’s style is “quite aggressive, not at all like a typical cautious Saudi diplomat, and he will have a free hand to do what he thinks necessary”, particularly in the case of Syria. Riyadh is a firm backer of the Free Syrian Army and is directly involved in smuggling military supplies to Syrian rebel forces with the help of the CIA. Washington is clearly in favor of Bandar’s return to politics, and is likely to strongly support the Prince in his new post. At the same time, the US will have disturbingly little to say about Bandar’s role in suppressing the democratic opposition inside Saudi Arabia itself, as well as in neighboring Bahrain, since it appears that Washington’s national security interests leave little room for political instability in the family-run dictatorships of the oil-rich Gulf.