Power Players

11.16.13

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s Gatsby, Master Spy

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once famous in Washington for his cigars, parties and charm, is now Saudi Arabia’s point man, fighting Iran in Syria and denouncing the Obama administration.

When the prince was the ambassador he was the toast of Washington, and plenty of toasts there were. Bandar bin Sultan smoked fine cigars and drank finer Cognac. For almost 30 years as Saudi Arabia’s regal messenger, lobbyist, and envoy, he told amazing stories about politicians and potentates, some of which, surprisingly, were true. Washington journalists loved him. Nobody had better access to more powerful people in higher places, or came with so much money, so quietly and massively distributed, to help out his friends.

Over the years, Bandar arranged to lower global oil prices in the service of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and both the Bushes. At the behest of the CIA’s Bill Casey, and behind the back of Congress, Bandar arranged for the Saudis to bankroll anti-Communist wars in Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan. He was thick with Dick Cheney, and he was so tight with the George H.W. Bush clan—the father, the mother, the sons, the daughters—that they just called him “Bandar Bush.”

Now, the prince is a spy, or, more precisely, the master spy of the Middle East. He is the point man for a vast Saudi program of covert action and conspicuous spending that helped overthrow the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and is attempting to forge a new “Army of Islam” in Syria. Without understanding the man and his mission, there’s no way, truly, to understand what’s happening in the world’s most troubled region right now.

Bandar’s goal is to undermine Iranian power: strip away Tehran’s allies like Assad and Hezbollah; stop the Shiite mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons; roll back their regional designs; and push them out of office if there’s any way to do that.

While there may be much to fault in Obama’s policy, it’s not as if Bandar and the Saudis have been innocent bystanders.

At the same time, he aims to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization that pays lip service to democracy and is fundamentally anti-monarchy.

The Bandar program makes for some interesting alliances. Never mind that there’s no peace treaty between Saudi Arabia and Israel, in these parts, as they say too often, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and Bandar has become the de facto anti-Iran ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. They are “curiously united,” says historian Robert Lacey, author of Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Bandar has always been inclined to defy conventions and bend rules. “Bandar is a man with chutzpah,” says Lacey.

In recent months, echoing Bibi, Bandar has let it be known that one of the biggest obstacles to his goals is U.S. President Barack Obama. And Bandar reportedly told European diplomats last month that Saudi Arabia would make a “major shift” away from its longstanding alliance with the United States.

Some of Bandar’s Saudi associates say he was just blowing off steam. But those who’ve followed his career closely suspect that as part of the shift he’s talking about he may be trying to forge an ever-closer relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The recently elected prime minister there, Nawaz Sharif, lived under royal protection in Saudi Arabia for much of the last decade. Journalist and scholar David Ottaway, author of the up-close Bandar biography The King's Messenger, predicted in 2009 that “if Iran did become a nuclear power and threatened the Kingdom, Pakistan could well become its principal defender rather than the United States.” In October, Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center reported that the Saudis have been trying to coax the Pakistanis into a major training program for Syrian rebels.

131115-dickey-bandar2-embed
President George H. Bush meets with Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Saudi Ambassador to the United States in the Oval Office on Thursday, March 1, 1991 of the White House in Washington. (Ron Edmonds/AP)

Of course a lot of this can be attributed to Saudi frustration with Obama. But Bandar’s bigger problem may be Bandar. He has put the resources and prestige of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the line again and again in recent years, and with very little to show for it. Syria remains a blood-drenched disaster practically on the Saudi doorstep. Iraq is sliding every deeper into a new sectarian civil war between Shiites (more or less supported by Iran), and Sunnis (more or less supported by Saudi Arabia). Egypt’s continuing civil strife and economic implosion are turning the country into a black hole for billions of Saudi dollars. And while there may be much to fault in Obama’s policy, it’s not as if Bandar and the Saudis have been innocent bystanders.

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who is at least 90 years old, has spent his lifetime and countless billions of dollars trying to promote stability in the region. But he’s not getting what he paid for. The Arab Spring stunned the Saudis, the chaos that followed terrified them, and they haven’t found any effective way to restore calm.

Even in little Lebanon, the Saudis and their men have been outmaneuvered time and again by the Iranians and their Hezbollah allies. When Bandar gave up his post as ambassador in Washington 2005, he took on the ill-defined job of national security advisor to the king. And one of his first acts, in 2006, was to offer behind-the-scenes encouragement to the Israelis in their ferocious war on Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Then Hezbollah fought them to a draw, emerging bloodied but unbowed, and with more credibility than ever.

So weirdly skewed is Bandar’s vision of Lebanon at this point that for a while he promoted Samir Geagea, the semi-mystical former commander of a savage Maronite Christian militia, to be the next president of the country. Other warlords who’ve worked with Bandar complain they can no longer get the Saudi intelligence chief on the phone. He supposedly disappears for days at a time. Saudi King Abdullah, it’s said in Beirut, doesn’t even want the word “Lebanon” spoken in his presence.

“Saudi Arabia is not doing well, and the measure of this is the panic of the Kingdom about the American-Iranian rapprochement,” says a Lebanese source, who is close to many backroom negotiations in the region and who asked not to be identified.

The “major shift” in the American relationship has not come because Bandar, or for that matter, King Abdullah, decided to shake things up. Saudi Arabia just isn’t quite as vital to the United States as it once was. The last 10 years have seen tectonic shifts in world energy supplies. The Kingdom and the once-feared Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) have nothing like the power they wielded 40 years ago. Thanks largely to fracking, the United States is now the world’s biggest producer of hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas), and non-OPEC supplies around the world far outstrip those of the old cartel.

Back in 1973, Saudi King Faisal could declare an oil embargo against the West that shook the United States to its economic foundations and transformed the global economy. Today, the Saudis vent their anger with fits of forgettable diplomatic rage. It’s doubtful most of the world even noticed when they declined to speak at the United Nations General Assembly in September, or announced a few weeks ago that they would turn down one of the rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council.

“Of course the Saudis are unhappy,” says Lacey. “But this nothing like 1973.”

Bandar, truly, must wish for the good old days. During the 22 years he served as ambassador in Washington, and even before that, he operated at the deep core of world events.

Despite his title and his late father’s position as longtime defense minister and potential heir to the throne, when the young Prince Bandar was in Riyadh he was not really part of upper-crust Saudi society. His mother had been a black-skinned servant (by some accounts, a slave) impregnated by his father when she was 16. So Bandar enjoyed none of the prestige or the clout that well-connected mothers bring to their sons in the Kingdom. But he was very bright, a brilliant English speaker, and an accomplished fighter pilot who knew his way around American military men.

Bandar played a key role in the late 1970s persuading the U.S. Congress over strenuous Israeli objections that the United States should sell billions of dollars worth of jet fighters to Saudi Arabia. After that, he became a trusted messenger carrying communications back and forth between President Jimmy Carter and Crown Prince Fahd, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler at the time.

Fahd recognized only too well the essential contradictions in the relationship between the Land of the Free and the House of Saud. The United States might be the biggest energy consumer in the world, and the Saudis the biggest energy producers, but beyond that fact few interests converged. “The United States is the most dangerous thing to us,” Fahd told the young Bandar, as recounted by Patrick Tyler in his superb history, A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East—from the Cold War to the War on Terror. “We have no cultural connection with them … no ethnic connection to them … no religious connection … no language connection … no political connection.”

Close personal relations and major favors would be the key to sustaining close ties, and Bandar was the man who would make it all work. His Washington soirées were legendary, like those of an “Arabian Gatsby,” says Tyler. And behind the scenes, it seemed, there was almost nothing he would not do to cement the Riyadh-Washington axis.

The big payoff came when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, looming as an enormous threat to Saudi Arabia as well.  Bandar smoothed the way for the United States to pour troops into his country and mount Operation Desert Storm, driving Saddam out of Kuwait and eliminating the menace to the Kingdom.

Just over a decade later, in the summer of 2001, Bandar was the emissary for then Crown Prince Abdullah, telling the recently inaugurated President George W. Bush that it was time for another major initiative: recognition of the Palestinians’ right to a state of their own, and an end to the slaughter in the Holy Land. If not, Bandar told Bush, things were going to get very ugly.

Once again there was talk that Riyadh might use “the oil weapon.” Bush agreed to endorse the eventual establishment of a separate and viable Palestinian state. But just as the White House and State Department were drafting the announcement, 19 terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania— and 15 of them, “the muscle” terrifying passengers on the planes— turned out to be Saudis.

I saw Bandar soon afterward at his mansion in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just outside of Paris (one of his many residences around the world), and he was putting on a brave act. But he clearly did not know what to say. The evidence that Saudi citizens were involved was irrefutable, and the Saudi security services had missed it.

Then the Bush administration started preparing for a new war with Iraq. Bandar warned against it. The Saudis knew the end result of Saddam’s ouster would be to strengthen Iran, and so it did. Once again, they increased oil supplies so the price of gas at the American pump wouldn’t spike too badly: a vital political favor to Bush. But “if  9/11 took the special out of the U.S.-Saudi ‘special relationship,’ the U.S. invasion of Iraq killed it stone dead,” says Lacey.

Even after Bandar left as ambassador to Washington in 2005, he continued to carry messages back and forth from Riyadh. It was increasingly clear, however, that the world and his world had changed. With chronic back pain from a crash landing when he was a pilot, and other health problems as well, the hitherto indefatigable Bandar was fatigued indeed. Although only in his early 60s, he now appears much older.

Last year, according to Saudi sources who’ve worked closely with Bandar, he told King Abdullah that he could solve the Syria situation in a matter of months. The previous intelligence chief, Abdullah’s half brother Prince Muqrin, had not been able to make much headway. But Bandar, as it turns out, has not been much of an improvement.

“His job requires being able to work 18 hours a day and he cannot,” says a Saudi who has collaborated closely with Bandar. He is frustrated and angry and anxious to show off to the world his ability to achieve the seemingly impossible, as he did in the past. But as the same Saudi points out, “being angry is not good in the intelligence business.” And in today’s Middle East, chutzpah just isn’t enough.