The informed Simon Henederson has noted that on 19 July “the Saudi government orchestrated its equivalent of Washington’s Friday afternoon news dump: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, son of the late crown prince and defense minister, Sultan, was appointed the new intelligence chief”.
He writes that Prince Bandar’s appointment is “is a reflection of King Abdullah’s concerns about developments in the Middle East, particularly Syria, and the limited talent pool in the House of Saud to meet the challenges. Frankly, it suggests panic in Riyadh”. He mentions that “the prevailing story about him recently has been about his mental state. William Sampson, a (friendly) biographer, noted that Bandar’s ‘first period of full-blown depression’ came in the mid-1990s. Another biographer, David Ottaway, described Bandar as a ‘more than occasional drinker,’ and most conversations about him seemed to revolve around, only partly mischievously, whether he had finished detoxification or not”.
Henderson posits the theory that “In June, when his uncle Crown Prince Nayef died, the Saudi Press Agency published a photo of Bandar, saying he offered his condolences. A week ago, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Jeddah, Bandar was also listed as attending his audience with King Abdullah. Although the kingdom’s main obsession is Iran, its immediate pre-occupation is Syria. On that issue, Bandar may indeed be the man for the moment. Over the years, he has acquired a reputation for discreet diplomacy and intrigue in both Syria and Lebanon. According to a source close to the ruling family, King Abdullah regards Bandar, who bad-mouthed the then crown prince during his tenure as ambassador to the United States, with caution”.
He writes, somewhat confusingly, that “Abdullah is often depicted as a Syriaphile, the monarch changed his attitude, especially after the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad castigated his fellow Arab leaders as “half-men” for their failure to support Hezbollah. Another more recent example of Saudi willingness to play in Syrian politics was the welcome that Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat, received in Riyadh when coming to pay his respects last month after Nayef’s death. Rifaat has lived in Paris since 1984, having tried and failed to stage a coup after President Hafez al-Assad, his brother and Bashar’s father, fell ill. Rifaat is related to King Abdullah by marriage — one of Rifaat’s wives was a sister of one of Abdullah’s wives, the mother of deputy foreign minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah. The closeness between Rifaat and Abdullah is more than just kinship: They worked together in the early 1980s when Rifaat was leading the Defense Companies, Syria’s praetorian guard, and Abdullah was commander of the Saudi Arabian national guard”.
He adds that “the kingdom may be adjusting its Syria policy, there is no denying that the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the Saudi CIA, is badly in need of a shakeup. Its recent record is, to say the least, mixed”. He goes on to write that “Both Muqrin and Nawaf, the men who served as Saudi intelligence chiefs between Turki and Bandar, lacked flair. Muqrin, who has now been shunted into an undefined advisory role, trained as a fighter pilot, like Bandar. But his primary credential for the job was that he was loyal to King Abdullah. His other qualification was that, like the king, he was not a Sudairi — the largest group of seven full brothers who have dominated Saudi royal politics for decades and still do, despite the passing of three of them. Nawaf, who took over from Turki, was even more of an Abdullah yes-man. The fiction that he was leading Saudi foreign intelligence was unsustainable after he suffered a stroke during the 2002 Beirut Arab summit. He is still alive, but confined to a wheelchair”.
He notes that the problems for Bandar, and the kingdom are great with “Even if Bandar has regained some of his previous form, the troubles of the Middle East, from a Saudi perspective, are surely more than can be handled by one man. In Syria, Riyadh wants Bashar out but does not want the contagion to spread to Jordan. To Riyadh’s fury, it also finds itself competing for influence in Syria with tiny Qatar, which appears to be just as generous with money and weapons but much far more nimble in responding to events on the ground. Meanwhile, Iran looms over the horizon”.
He concludes “for some reason, King Abdullah has chosen Bandar for a role that, without too much hyperbole, might be described as saving the kingdom. It’s an interesting choice”.