Why did Prince Bandar resign as Saudi intelligence chief?

Prince Bandar

One has only to read William Simpson’s biography of Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz to understand why the Saudi King, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, has accepted his resignation as head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services, writes Abdelbari Atwan.

William Simpson is a personal friend of Prince Bandar and studied with him at St Andrew’s College of Military Science. His 2006 book, “The Prince: The Secret Story of the World’s Most Intriguing Royal – Prince Bandar bin Sultan,” describes a dazzling network of friendships in high places (George W. Bush nick-named him “Bandar Bush”) and a complex psychology.

The prince does not hold back from admitting responsibility for, or involvement in, several notorious violent incidents. One such was the assassination attempt on Mr Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the Lebanese Shiite spiritual leader, in retaliation for the Islamic jihad suicide bombing of US and French barracks in Beirut in which 300 servicemen were killed.

Prince Bandar was a mass of contradictions, having served seventeen years in the Saudi air force as a pilot, he was dispatched to Washington where he spent the next twenty two years as the KSA’s ambassador. There, he played a major role in securing US and British arms deals, receiving massive commissions in the process.

He was instrumental in the US decision to send 50,000 troops to Saudi Arabia to expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1990 and the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Bandar was also responsible for keeping the US-KSA relationship intact after 9/11 in which seventeen out of nineteen hi-jackers were Saudi nationals.

Significantly, and in keeping with the pattern of contradictions and paradox that underpins the book, there are two forewords: one by Nelson Mandela, the most famous freedom fighter and liberal thinker of our times (Bandar was a personal friend and was the only non-family member to attend his last wedding); the other by Margaret Thatcher, the most right-wing, neo-colonialist leader in British history, and perhaps the West.

Saudi intelligence

So why have we allowed ourselves the liberty of this long introduction discussing Bandar’s achievements, when all we want to do is talk about his removal as head of intelligence? The answer is simple: his achievements, his success, his exuberant self-confidence and his limitless ambition are the reasons for his (voluntary) dismissal.

Saudi intelligence is a complicated beast and has caused King Abdullah Bin Abdel-Aziz many headaches since the isolated Prince Turki Al-Faisal gave up his post as head of intelligence on 1 September 2001, having been in post for 22 years. Turki had turned the department into something resembling a private empire.

Prince Bandar with President Bush
Prince Bandar with President Bush

Turki experienced personal communication problems with the King while he was still Crown Prince and this explains why he was replaced by King Abdullah’s brother, Prince Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz, despite his advanced age.

This appointment was to last just four years, he was followed by Prince Muqrin and finally, in July 2012 by Prince Bandar – a surprise appointment to many in the Saudi establishment. Now, less than two years on, Bandar is “resigning.”

There are two declared reasons for his departure: the first is ill health – Bandar underwent surgery on the shoulder in Washington, then moved to his palace in Morocco to recuperate; the second is mismanagement of the Syria file where he was charged with funding and arming Islamist groups to accelerate the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad – they have yet to succeed in that mission and now the big fear is that the “moderate” Islamists are losing ground to the most extreme jihadi groups.

We suggest the second scenario is more likely.

Successor

Prince Bandar had been outside his country’s decision-making circles for years after leaving his post as US Ambassador; he had been spending most of his time on his private air busses travelling between Glympton, the entire Oxfordshire village he bought allegedly with his commission from the al-Yamamah arms deal, and his palaces in Marrakech, Washington, France and probably others that are not in the public knowledge.

Washington broke with the Saudi line on Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s watch on two major issues. The first was when Assad was encouraged to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, thus avoiding what seemed like an inevitable (and greatly desire in Riyadh) US strike on regime targets; the second was when KSA’s arch-enemy, Iran, signed a nuclear agreement with the so-called 5+1 group, resulting in the removal of several embargos and sanctions and again making a military strike more unlikely than it has been for decades.

In response to this headstrong behaviour by President Obama and the US Congress, Prince Bandar bin Sultan tried to build alternative bridges with Russian President Vladimir Putin; he met with him about four times, and spent lengthy periods in Moscow during the last six months during which he met top Russian political and security leaders. We will see what the outcome of these visits will turn out to be.

Prince Bandar has been replaced by General Youssef al-Idrissi and two questions present themselves: one, will Bandar continue to be on the National Security Council and two, is his removal as head of Intelligence permanent or might he, at some point, return?

Time will tell.

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