The appointment of Prince Bandar bin Sultanas the head of Saudi Arabia’s principal intelligence service is widely seen as a shift toward a more aggressive foreign policy as the kingdom struggles with challenges from Iran and Syria.
King Abdallah named Bandar, a veteran of the Middle East’s intrigues and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington in 1983-2005, in a surprise July 19 command change at the General Intelligence Presidency, the kingdom’s foreign intelligence agency.
Bandar, Abdallah’s nephew, replaces Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, the king’s half-brother and Bandar’s half-uncle who was widely seen as one of the monarch’s closest advisers.
Abdullah appointed Muqrin in 2005 to replace Prince Nawaf bin Abdulaziz. Muqrin, who had lived in relative obscurity until he took over the GIP, had come under considerable domestic criticism of late because of what is seen as a poor performance in handling the complexities of the surge of pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world that the House of Saud has sought to keep at arm’s length.
The civil war in Syria, whose Alawite regime Saudi Arabia’s Sunny monarchy has long plotted against, and the prospect of a war with Shiite Iran over its reported drive to acquire nuclear weapons, preoccupy Riyadh while, Abdallah, Canute-like, strives to keep the democratic wave from breaking on its shores.
Saudi Arabia now “has the opportunity to regain its leading role” in the region after it “subsided in favor of Iran and Turkey following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq,” in 2003, observed political analyst Abdullah al-Shummari.
“We need Bandar bin Sultan. He’s a volcano and we need a volcano at this moment.”
The flamboyant Bandar, whose intimacy with several U.S. presidents overcame American suspicions of Saudi Arabia following 9/11, has been elevated to one of the most powerful posts in the Arab world after keeping a low profile following his recall from Washington in 2005.
It’s the geopolitical front that Bandar, a master of covert operations like the arming of the Afghan Mujahedin against the Soviet army in the 1980s, will have to focus on in the months ahead.
A key element will be restoring relations with the United States that have been strained in recent years.
Then there’s the increasingly tense U.S.-Iran confrontation in the Persian Gulf swells, while Syria slides into a murderous anarchy that threatens to ignite regional Sunni-Shiite violence and the Arab world grapples with the chaos triggered by the toppling of four dictatorships since February 2011.
Bandar’s known to be a fierce opponent of Iran and its sole Arab ally, Syria.
His elevation to chief of Saudi Arabia’s vast intelligence network, and the unlimited funds it controls, came only one day after the embattled Damascus regime was battered by the loss of four of President Bashar Assad’s most important security chiefs in a bombing inside the heavily guarded national security headquarters.
The regime-shaking attack was apparently the work of Sunni rebels armed by Saudi Arabia.
Whether the Saudi connection went any deeper than that is a matter for conjecture. But it may have been Saudi gold that bought the rebels a way into Assad’s inner sanctum.
It should be noted that Bandar’s appointment was one a several important command changes in the Saudi national security leadership.
In June, Deputy Interior Minister Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz was promoted to full minister, replacing his powerful older brother, Crown Prince Nayef, who died June 16.
Prince Salman became defense minister in November 2011 after the long-serving Prince Sultan, Bandar’s hard-line father, died Oct. 21.
“There is an immense scope for an aggressive foreign policy now,” a knowledgeable Western source observed.
“The Saudis have been remarkably upfront and aggressive about Syria. They haven’t been this open about supporting and army an opposition force since Afghanistan.”
The Financial Times noted that Bandar is known “for harboring particular hostility toward Bashar Assad … whose file has been personally handled by King Abdallah’s own son, Prince Abdul Aziz, the deputy foreign minister.”
“Supporting the opposition in Syria has allowed Saudi Arabia to slow down and perhaps push back the rise of Iran’s power in the region,” observed the global intelligence consultancy Stratfor.