AS ANNOUNCED ON Wednesday, July 20, Saudi Arabia's long-serving ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, is leaving town. Allegedly, he resigned. The dean of the foreign diplomatic corps in Washington will be replaced by Prince Turki al Faisal, the former intelligence chief of the kingdom.
Seeing the last of the unctuous Bandar will be viscerally pleasing to many Americans and to Saudi liberal dissidents. The now-former ambassador was disliked by embassy staff for his personal corruption, favoritism, and arbitrary cruelties. And questions about the role of his wife, Princess Haifa, in sending money to participants in the September 11 conspiracy have never been answered.
But is his replacement by Turki an improvement? Not at first glance. Turki is sophisticated and charming. But he also has stains on his résumé. He recently served as Saudi ambassador in London, but before that was the kingdom's intelligence chief until August 2001. He has never denied his association with Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, although he disclaims any knowledge of or involvement with al Qaeda.
Why shuffle the diplomatic cards? To begin with, Bandar and Turki represent differing factions in the House of Saud. Bandar is the son of defense minister Prince Sultan, who has made millions doing business with the United States, and whose adherence to Wahhabism, the extremist Saudi brand of Islam, is said to be nominal. But Sultan and Bandar are Sudairis, offspring of Hussa bint Ahmad Al Sudairi, a favorite wife of the Saudi patriarch, Ibn Saud. They have always been known as hard-liners, even when they are more concerned with finance than with faith. The incapacitated but reigning King Fahd is a Sudairi, as is Bandar's uncle, and the Sultan's brother, Prince Nayef, the Saudi interior minister. Nayef is the most extreme Wahhabi at the top of the heap and is considered the Darth Vader of global Islam.
Turki, notwithstanding his questionable associations, is a son of the late King Faisal, and therefore a member of a different faction, the Faisalids. The children of Faisal have always had a reputation as moderates being open to reform. Meanwhile, the figurehead ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, represents a separate line altogether--these things are common in polygamous families--and is believed to harbor a real distaste for Islamist extremism, which he believes divides Muslims and Arabs. One thing is certain: the radical Sudairis, to which Bandar belonged, hate him.
What does it mean--especially since this momentous event coincides with a new warning against terror attacks on Americans residing in the kingdom?
It could mean that something exceptionally compromising is about to be revealed about Bandar and his activities in the United States, although it is said he offered his resignation some time ago.
It could mean that the highest circles of the monarchical caste are preparing for the death of King Fahd (who recently went into a hospital) by placing men in key positions who are not necessarily beholden to Fahd and his Sudairi gang.
It could mean that the kingdom's rulers are seriously concerned about their image at home and abroad, and simply prefer more a experienced and more capable man like Turki, to the brash Bandar, especially in dealing with the United States.
It could even mean the beginning of a political upheaval in one of the world's most authoritarian, backward, and repressive, countries.
Either way, keep watching. Events in the kingdom may well speed up, soon.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.