Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar bin Sultan fell in love with the United States when he was still an air force pilot and took aerobatics training on an American air base. The romance was renewed several years later when he was named the Saudi ambassador to Washington, a tenure that lasted 22 years. He was a regular guest of George H.W. Bush and later his son, and was the only ambassador guarded by the U.S. Secret Service.
Last week, King Abdullah named Bandar, 62, director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency, on top of his post as secretary-general of the National Security Council, which he has held since 2005.
Bandar’s appointment to the Saudis’ most important security post is no coincidence. For one thing, he’s very well connected to the kingdom’s leaders. His wife Haifa was the daughter of King Faisal, who was assassinated in 1975. Her brother Turki al-Faisal once headed Saudi intelligence, and another brother, Mohammed al-Faisal, is one of the kingdom’s richest men.
But it seems the main reason for his appointment now is that Saudi Arabia is preparing for the next stage in Syria, after President Bashar Assad leaves the political stage one way or another and Syria becomes a battleground for influence.
An intense campaign is under way over this inheritance, with the United States, European Union and Russia taking part. But the ramifications of Assad’s fall on Iran and Hezbollah – and Iraq – are more important. And when Egypt is hobbling in its effort to establish its “Second Republic” and the Arab League is paralyzed, Saudi Arabia is left to draw up the Middle East’s new map.
The view from D.C.
From Washington’s perspective, Bandar’s appointment is important news. Sure, his wife was investigated by Congress a decade ago about her connections to Al-Qaida activists. But Bandar is considered the CIA’s man in Riyadh. He’s not just a rugby fan and man-about-town – he’s known as a can-do person who makes quick decisions and doesn’t spare resources to achieve his objectives.
When there was a need to transfer money to the Nicaraguan rebels in the 1980s, Bandar dealt with the Saudi “grants” requested by the White House. He also arranged things when Saudi Arabia was asked to help fund the mujahideen’s battles in Afghanistan against the Soviets.
Bandar is a member of the part of the royal family that opposes the revolutions in the Arab states; they see the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise no less of a threat than Iran’s influence in the region.
He helped King Abdullah (when the latter was still crown prince ) put together the Saudi peace plan – later the Arab Peace Initiative – to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he fashioned the Saudis’ tough stance against Syria and Hezbollah after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A few years later, he suggested that the king change course and reconcile with Syria in an effort to cool relations between Damascus and Tehran.
From Bahrain to Tahrir Square
When the revolutions broke out, Bandar supported sending troops to the small kingdom of Bahrain next door to quell the Shi’ite revolt, which Saudi Arabia perceived as Iranian intervention in the Gulf states’ affairs. Saudi Arabia also moved fast to support the new regime in Cairo, depositing more than $3 billion as a guarantee at the Egyptian central bank.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi knows well that this aid doesn’t stem from Saudi Arabia’s great love for the Tahrir revolution, let alone for the Muslim Brotherhood. But it’s meant to block Iranian efforts to gain a foothold in Egypt. As a result, when Morsi was invited to Tehran for a conference of nonaligned nations, he stopped first in Riyadh so as not to give Iran the satisfaction of being the new Egyptian president’s first host.
Saudi commentators say Bandar was the one behind the decision to give money to the Syrian rebels, and even to buy weapons for them. They say the Saudi demand that Assad step down is part of Bandar’s strategy, which guides the kingdom far more than the positions of the 88-year-old king, whose health is failing.
The Saudi policy on Syria is being closely coordinated with the United States; both countries (like Israel ) want to separate Iran from its most important Arab base and slow the weapons flow to Hezbollah. These goals haven’t eluded Iranian eyes, so Tehran is strengthening its position in Iraq and the Kurdish zone of northern Iraq. Moreover, according to reports from the Syrian opposition, Iran is making clandestine contacts with rebel representatives in Europe.
There’s no way to know what Syria will look like after Assad, or which rebel faction it pays to invest in. Saudi Arabia, as is its wont, is investing in them all. Hopefully the United States will get the payoff.