Prince Bandar Bin Sultan: Diplomat turned spy chief
As Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar used his wit, charm and humour to form coalitions, strengthen willing partners and persuade hesitant allies. As head of Saudi intelligence, he now has to spearhead the kingdom’s aggressive foreign policy
When Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz announced in July 2005 that he was resigning as ambassador to the US, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, described him as a “tireless advocate for close ties, warm relations, and mutual understanding”.
Few people in the turbulent Middle East leave as strong and colourful an impact as Prince Bandar.
“Flamboyant, dramatic, personable, smart, canny and probably manipulative,” was how General Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to president George Bush Sr, described the Saudi prince.
Prince Bandar’s biographer David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, estimated that the flamboyant prince, who was the Saudi king’s personal envoy before serving as his country’s ambassador to the US for 22 years, dealt with “five US presidents, ten secretaries of state, 11 national security advisers, 16 sessions of Congress, an obstreperous American media, and hundreds of greedy politicians”.
When Prince Bandar was appointed Saudi Arabia’s spy chief in 2012, the goal was reportedly to help his country as it became actively engaged in the bitter sectarian-driven game-changing crisis in the region.
“He’s just the right person for the right time in Saudi Arabia. They have a more hawkish foreign policy and he’s the leading hawk of the House of Saud,” Ottaway was quoted as saying.
Known for his wit, charm and humour, Prince Bandar, who wielded enormous influence wherever he went, was equally at ease in air-conditioned tents in the Saudi desert, in amazing beach houses in Saudi Arabia or in impressive mansions in Europe and the US, making friends and winning support for his country.
In 2012, the international community realised that Saudi Arabia was serious about its new and openly aggressive foreign policy with the emergence of various regional challenges, when Prince Bandar reprised his geopolitical operator role in the complex and intricate world of intrigue in the Middle East.
Already secretary-general of Saudi Arabia’s National Security Council since 2005, he took over the Saudi General Intelligence Agency. For most people, the appointment clearly launched a new phase in Saudi international politics.
Prince Bandar was born in March 1949 in Taif, in the western province of Makkah. His father was Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, the country’s long-serving defence minister, from 1963 to 2011, and crown prince from 2005 to 2011.
Prince Bandar’s rise to prominence was chartered mainly through his uniquely strong determination and robust will to succeed. He graduated from the Royal Air Force College Cranwell in 1968 and was commissioned in the Royal Saudi Air Force. He received additional training at Maxwell Air Force Base and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and had a 17-year career in the military. As a trained pilot, he flew numerous fighter aircraft.
He obtained a master’s degree in International Public Policy at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
In 1982, Prince Bandar was appointed by King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz as the military attache at the Saudi embassy in Washington. One year later, he was named the Saudi Ambassador to the United States.
He quickly became one of the most important diplomatic figures in Washington, one of Riyadh’s most essential allies, and cultivated close ties with US presidents and leaders. He enjoyed unparalleled access to centres of power in the US and gradually played a highly significant unpublicised role in diplomacy and international deals.
The prince lobbied almost always successfully on behalf of his country, overcoming formidable resistance and daunting challenges from several sources.
Prince Bandar was, for instance, able to secure the purchase of AWACs surveillance aircraft by Saudi Arabia despite strong opposition from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
His influence extended to other countries and continents, earning him in equal measures praise for wielding so much power and suspicions he was too close to the Americans. The picture of him sitting on the arm of a sofa and wearing casual clothes while talking with president George Bush has become an iconic indication of his special relations with the US leaders.
His pronounced enthusiasm and strong drive as the top Saudi diplomat in Washington triggered a wide spectrum of reactions at home and abroad that ranged between outright criticism as impulsiveness to praise as the most successful approach to solving problems.
Prince Bandar never showed any indication that he was affected by reports about him, well aware that there are often numerous fabricated and misleading claims about personalities of his calibre.
His hawkish character was expected to serve him again when he left Washington in 2005 to become the head of his country’s National Security Council. Yet, the prince continued to have direct private contact with White House officials. He was even described as a key architect of the Bush administration policy in Iraq and the Middle East.
For diplomats familiar with the prince and the Middle East, he has the status and influence needed to form coalitions, strengthen the hand of willing partners and persuade hesitant allies.
The stakes had become increasingly higher in the region and the hostility between Iran-backed Syrian regime and Saudi Arabia had dramatically escalated.
Within days of his appointment, pro-Syrian regime websites claimed that Prince Bandar had been assassinated in a bomb attack on July 24 because he allegedly organised, with American support, the July 18 bombing in central Damascus that killed some of Bashar Al Assad’s senior ministers and aides. The death reports proved to be lacking credibility and an article in a Saudi daily attributed the false news to an Iranian and Syrian obsession with Prince Bandar.
“Damascus and Tehran are obsessed with the conspiracy theory that Gulf states are behind planning and funding of such terror acts,” Ali Bluwi wrote in Arab News. “Moreover, the two countries are also obsessed with Bandar Bin Sultan. They think Prince Bandar has a firm stand against them and that his close relationship with Jeffrey Feltman [the top US diplomat for the Middle East] and the American political and security institutions posed a threat to them,” he wrote.
Prince Bandar’s energetic and charming character and his love of baseball and good living have endeared him to several US administration and world leaders. However, his endless dedication to serving his country and his drive to achieve his objectives is a clear indication of his strong determination and willingness to work successfully on the wildly complex canvas of the Middle East.
With Syria plagued by armed conflicts, Iraq hopelessly struggling and Egypt working on its uncertainty, Saudi Arabia is the only stable Arab major nation and Prince Bandar is reportedly keen on his country flexing its muscle to maintain its power and influence, at a time when rival Iran is working tirelessly to spread its base in the region.