September 2, 2013
Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been coordinating Saudi Arabia‘s policies towards the Syrian uprising since being appointed intelligence chief by King Abdullah in July. Bandar’s reputation as an inveterate networker and hawk have fuelled anticipation about how he will handle the bloodiest crisis of the Arab spring.
In 1983 Bandar, the king’s nephew, became Saudi ambassador to Washington, where he spent 22 years. He was close to presidents Reagan and both Bushes – and was even known as “Bandar Bush”. He negotiated huge arms deals for the Kingdom – including the infamous £43bn al-Yamamah agreement with the UK. The Guardian reported allegations that he had received £1bn in secret payments from BAE.
Part of the mystery surrounding him involved his role in backing the Mujahideen who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with CIA support in the 1980s. He is famously hostile to Iran, the Saudi kingdom’s great rival, and is said to advocate links with Israel, seeing it as a lesser threat than the Islamic republic.
The normally flamboyant Bandar – he has a penchant for cigars and flies in a private Airbus – had kept a low profile since returning to Riyadh in 2005 and becoming head of the national security council. But he was often photographed with senior US officials, most recently during a visit by the CIA director, General David Petraeus.
Bandar took over the Syria “file” from the king’s son Abdelaziz, a deputy foreign minister. The move also followed rumours of inefficiency at the intelligence agency. Bandar organized the visit of Manaf Tlass, the Sunni general and Assad associate who defected from Syria in July. Shortly after his appointment it was rumoured – evidently falsely – that he had been killed in an explosion in Riyadh. Iranian and pro-Assad media suggested it was retaliation for the assassination of four of Assad’s senior security chiefs in a bomb attack in Damascus a few days earlier.
Veteran Saudi-watchers say that decision-making in Riyadh, where government is highly personalised and the senior royals ageing, is currently in poor shape. The king is 88 and frail, Crown Prince Salman, 76, abroad and the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, 72, convalescing.
In a rare public glimpse of his movements, Bandar was reported to be in the Qatari capital Doha on Wednesday, holding talks with the Emir, Sheikh Hamad. It would be surprising if the Syrian crisis was not on their agenda. “We need to wait and see what Bandar will do with the Syria file,” said one Saudi source. “People will be watching carefully.”