For 22 years, Bandar bin Sultan was Saudi Arabia’s influential, irrepressible ambassador in Washington. After years in eclipse, he has just been named as head of the kingdom’s intelligence service. What does it all mean?
Prince Bandar lived large: Not only did he have the official ambassador’s residence, but also his own 32-room mansion in Aspen and a 2,000 acre estate in England. He was a very visible figure from 1983 to 2005 as the Saudi envoy in Washington. This was partly due to the parties he gave, and the very wide network of connections he built, but also because he was an effective diplomat. Spanning the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and second Bush presidencies, he made sure Saudi views were known, dealt directly with officials at the top of the U.S. government (including presidents), and could get things done. He spoke authoritatively for the Saudi king, and carried messages of great sensitivity back and forth from king to president.
Yet Bandar was evicted from that post and from the palatial Saudi official residence on the Potomac in McLean, Virginia in 2005. Why? One complaint was that he was sometimes a bit too creative in carrying those messages, occasionally passing “what the minister meant to say” versions instead of the literal words he was asked to communicate. More importantly, his health failed. There were stories of hospitalization for depression and for alcoholism, and of abuse of painkillers that he needed for an old back injury (Bandar was a jet pilot, and was injured during a crash landing in 1977). His place in Washington was taken by a very different figure: Adel al-Jubeir, not a member of the royal family and a far quieter, more traditional diplomat. Bandar returned home and was given the title secretary general of the National Security Council, just at the point where his father Prince Sultan, the long-time Minister of Defense, became Crown Prince. (Sultan died last October.) But in that post, Bandar had no real role, and Saudi Arabia has no real National Security Council. Bandar was sent on occasional missions, especially in 2006, when he visited Washington often. But he was often missing at important meetings. He faded away.
Now he is back. His return certainly suggests that the king concluded the previous head of the intelligence service, Prince Muqrin, was not up to the job, which he had held since 2005. Perhaps the combination of events we call the Arab Spring—revolts in Tunisia and Libya, the fall of Mubarak, the demonstrations and their repression in Bahrain, the chaos in Syria today—and the Iranian nuclear program were simply too much for Muqrin. In any event the king must have thought so. But the choice of Bandar to replace him suggests another explanation to me.
Bandar is no bureaucrat; he is in fact the antithesis of the careful follower or enforcer of rules, or the manager of a large bureaucracy. He is a special mission guy, skilled in personal diplomacy: What Bandar achieves he achieves himself, not by devising plans and schemes for others. But that ability is precisely what has been missing in Saudi diplomacy for several years. This is mostly due to the illness of Prince Saud, who has been foreign minister since 1975 and is now suffering from Parkinson’s. Once upon a time Saud would have flown to Benghazi and Tunis and Cairo, and led an Arab League session on Syria, but that day is past. While others such as Hamad bin Jassem—the prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar who has used his energy, personality, and money to expand Qatar’s influence—have led Arab diplomacy, the Saudis have been off the field. Now they may return, with an energetic and experienced player who can match anyone in the Arab world for charm, a network of contacts, and the financial resources of a rich government. Bandar is a spinner of webs, a dealmaker, a man who—assuming he is healthy—can bring Saudi views and interests back to the center of Arab decision making as well as the inner circles in many other world capitals.
That sounds like the job of a foreign minister, but that post is taken and the king has several times refused to allow Saud to retire from it. And Bandar will be better able to perform many of the needed tasks—for example, helping the Syrian opposition or hatching sabotage plots against Iran—from the Intelligence Service. Two serious problems may arise: Bandar’s relative lack of familiarity with the Intelligence Service’s internal work of crushing opposition to the regime, and his inexperience at managing any organization larger than the Saudi embassy in Washington (which, by general consensus, he mismanaged quite badly). So he will need some deputies who not only have his trust but are experienced and first rate; if he tries to elevate his younger brother Salman he will be sowing the seeds of his own failure. And it is perfectly possible that he may fail in the new task, or be replaced by a new king when King Abdallah, who is somewhere between 87 and 92, passes from the scene. But for now, the noticeable eclipse of Saudi energy and influence on Arab affairs in the last several years may come to an end. “Cautious,” “silent,” and “invisible” are words that have never been associated with Bandar, and he is back.