Removal of Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a key figure in kingdom’s foreign relations, especially ties with the United States and the crisis in Syria, from his post raised questions as why it happened at such a critical time.
The official statement announcing the dismissal of the Saudi head of intelligence was typically laconic. Published in the name of Saudi King Abdullah, it said Prince Bandar was “released” from the post “as per his request” and replaced by General Youssef Al-Idrissi.
Israeli Haaretz daily writes in a report that on the face of it, the move could be mistaken for just another chair reshuffling, in line with others that the king has made over the past two years.
Prince Bandar’s health issues could also be taken as an explanation – the 65-year-old recently underwent treatment in the US and spent some time recuperating in Morocco.
But, the paper writes, Bandar did not resign voluntarily.
Reviewing recent disagreements between Saudi Arabia and US over Syria, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the report says, it was Obama who asked the king to dismiss Bandar, as a means of reducing the tension between the two nations.
Bandar, who returned to Saudi Arabia in 2005 after serving as its ambassador to the US for 22 years, was often referred to in Washington as “Bandar Bush,” due to his strong ties to both Bush presidents.
The business, national and personal bonds between the houses of Saud and Bush were deep and mutually beneficial – and they turned the billionaire ambassador into the face of Saudi Arabia in the US.
During his tenure, the Saudi embassy enjoyed the permanent protection of the American secret service and Bandar had free access to the Oval Office.
After 9/11, it was Bandar who succeeded, against the wishes of the FBI, in gaining special permission to fly Saudi students out of the US at a time when all air travel was at a standstill. Bandar’s wife, Princess Haifa, was once suspected of having contact with an Al Qaeda courier and a financier, but the investigation went nowhere.
Obama’s election did not freeze the relationship between the families, but the Saudis began to view the White House with suspicion. Despite the growth in trade between the two countries – Saudi Arabia has foreign currency reserves of some $650 billion and has invested deeply in US bonds – Obama’s Middle East policy raised concern.
That reached a peak with the January 25, 2011 revolution in Egypt. Obama’s unqualified support for the protest movement and his calls on then-president Hosni Mubarak to resign were seen in Saudi Arabia as treachery, both personal and ideological. A democratic revolution that had the potential of spreading into the Gulf states was the last thing the king wanted
Four days after the protests in Egypt began, Abdullah warned Obama against pressuring Mubarak to step down, arguing in favor of allowing him to oversee the democratization process before retiring. Abdullah also vowed that Saudi Arabia would provide aid to Egypt in place of the US, should America decide to halt its aid.
Saudi anger deepened when the Muslim Brotherhood won the first Egyptian election after the revolution with a large majority – and even more when Mohammed Morsi won the presidency.
The US administration’s praise of the democratic process in Egypt was insulting to Saudi ears.
While the dispute with Washington is useful for Bandar, the disagreements at home are creating a dark cloud above his head.
As head of intelligence, Bandar was also responsible for Saudi Arabia’s policy regarding Syria.
It was he who maneuvered the kingdom into a radical stance that required military intervention, both pan-Arab and international. He applied pressure on Jordan to get it to provide not only a basis for rebel training, but also a jumping-off point for an attack on Syrian government. Bandar sourced weapons in Ukraine and other countries and provided them lavishly to the rebel groups.
But, while doing so, he also encouraged Saudi extremists to embark on jihad against Assad, and nurtured some of the most radical groups in Syria, several of which had good relations with Al Qaeda. Nevertheless, Bandar was supported by the king, primarily because he promised the king that Assad’s defeat was near.
The concern of Muhammad bin Nayef was that the Saudis fighting in Syria would return to their birth-place and instill new life into the Saudi terror networks. He insisted that the kingdom no longer send volunteers to Syria and even issued an order to that effect.
That was the point at which he clashed head-on with Bandar – and won. In February, the king decided to transfer the “Syria file” from Bandar to Muhammad, who himself is a candidate to succeed the king.
At the same time, the king appointed Prince Muqrin, the youngest son of former King Abdulaziz al-Saud, as heir apparent to Crown Prince Salman Salman bin Abdulaziz.
Bandar succeeded Muqrin as intelligence chief in July 2012, a role change that itself was due to the failed management of Saudi policy in Syria.
Muqrin currently appears to be the leading successor and the dismissal of Bandar is intended to calm the political sniping in the king’s court. The next clash is expected to be between Prince Muhammad and Muqrin, and the question is whether the 90-year-old king has already drawn up a will naming his successor.
It will be the last time that a Saudi king names his successor. The next king will have to confer with, and win the agreement of, a 35-member committee, all of whom are members of the royal family.