Ambassador Robert Jordan Crosses Sudairi Princes

The trouble began at the traditional July 4 reception at the US embassy in Riyadh. The hundreds of guests were buzzing over two principal topics of conversation, the ongoing crackdown against al Qaeda in various parts of the kingdom and the royal succession question that remains up in the air. No one was indiscreet enough to point out that King Fahd’s indisposition had left his half brother crown prince Abdullah serving as de facto ruler for eight long years and the royal succession in a state of limbo. However speculation continues to be rife over which prince will be chosen as crown prince and therefore successor to Abdullah after he ascends the throne.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported on developments surrounding the struggle over the succession in previous issues (Issue No. 82 of October 25, 2002, Issue 84 on November 8), revealing that the crown prince who is 80 cherishes a secret ambition to skip a generation of princes, i.e his half-brothers, in favor of younger princes. This has antagonized the Sudairi branch led by King Fahd and the senior candidate for the succession, the 79-year old defense minister Prince Sultan.

Other powerful members of the Sudairi clan are interior minister Prince Nayef and the Riyadh governor Prince Salman – both in their 70s and determinedly opposed to Abdullah’s plan to rejuvenate the House of Saud.

In their private conclaves, they voice the wish for the order of succession to proceed according to custom whereby the senior princes select a suitable crown prince from amongst themselves. This is a safe recipe for electing the oldest – not the best qualified candidate and so dodging an internal feud over who is to be the next crown prince and eventually king.

The Sudairis are clinging to the status quo because they privately believe that Abdullah’s quest for reform is motivated by his wish to cut them out of the line of succession.

The issue is so delicate and fraught with emotion that last year Abdullah stayed at home instead of taking his usual summer vacation at his summer palace in Morocco, for fear of a Sudairi putsch – not to oust him but to force him to bow to their wishes.

Since then, the hidebound kingdom has been caught up in one earthshaking event after another: the American invasion of Iraq earlier this year, followed by the May 12 suicide bombings of Western residential compounds in Riyadh and the embarrassing disclosures in intelligence reports published on the second anniversary of the September 11 suicide attacks in New York and Washington that contained charges of Saudi funding of al Qaeda operations.

These events have added fuel to the flames already burning at the royal court.

All that was needed to raise them higher was an incautious remark from the US ambassador Robert Jordan that was dropped at that same July 4 embassy reception. What he is reported as saying is that after Abdullah ascends the throne, the United States would like to see him choose a non-Sudairi as the next crown prince.

He let the cat out of the bag

By this one remark, the ambassador brought into the open the crown prince’s innermost ambition and confirmed the worst fears of the Sudairi contenders. He may have believed he was heard only by princes closest to Abdullah, but his words were reportedly repeated by a member of the circle who fell out with the crown prince and rolled around the Saudi capital with incendiary effect. A major flap erupted among the Sudairi princes, who demanded that Abdullah send the American ambassador packing there and then.

Although US officials contended Jordan was misquoted – and the ambassador said later his comments had been taken out of context and were not intended as a message from the US government – his departure after serving only two years of his three-year term had become unavoidable. Abdullah had no choice but to bow to his half brothers’ demand on the grounds that an American official could not be permitted to meddle in the internal affairs of the monarchy.

Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al Faisal denied reports that the kingdom had requested his departure and stated that the envoy himself had decided to leave “for personal reasons”.

Robert Jordan was a political appointee of President George W. Bush, sent out to his post shortly before the 9/11 catastrophe. He was a founding partner of the Houston-based oil attorney firm of Baker Botts and got Bush’s now defunct oil company through a potentially sticky 1990 Securities and Exchange Commission insider trading investigation.

Years later, Jordan joined former secretary of state James Baker, his former colleague at Baker Botts, on the legal team that helped Bush through the 2001 election recount battle in Florida that gained him the presidency.

Prince Bandar, son of Sultan, who has served as Saudi ambassador to Washington for 20 years, denounced as baseless and false the reports that his government had demanded Jordan’s expulsion, said he had made many friends in the kingdom and stressed he was leaving his post for genuine personal reasons.

The Saudi ambassador was evidently intent on cooling the furor and fending off any ill will towards the kingdom on top of the fallout from the events of September 11, 2001.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly notes that Jordan is not the first American ambassador whose departure was requested by a Saudi government. In 1988, King Fahd asked for the recall of Ambassador Hume Horan before he had served a full year of his term of duty.

Some years later, the story behind the incident came out. Reputed to be the best Arabic speaker in the US State Department, he was accused of exploiting his command of the language for face to face interviews with Saudi personalities including clerics. The monarch resented what he regarded as foreign meddling. Washington recalled the ambassador and has never since appointed an Arabic-speaking envoy in Riyadh.

Well-informed sources in Washington doubt that Ambassador Jordan, a seasoned attorney and political operative, would have been guilty of a slip of the tongue or spoken off his own bat.

It would not be the first time he denigrated a Sudairi prince. After the suicide attacks in Riyadh on May 12, the ambassador was quoted as complaining that the royal government had responded with insufficient dispatch to American requests for greater security at the compounds that were attacked by the suicide bombers.

That complaint was taken as criticism of interior minister Sudairi Prince Nayef who was deemed to have fallen down on his responsibilities to crack down on terrorist cells and prevent outbreaks.

Certain American circles also accused Nayef and some of his brothers of purchasing calm by paying Osama bin Laden off and pretending not to notice what his cells were up to.

In the view of DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi experts, the Bush administration is not so much averse to Sultan taking over as crown prince when Abdullah becomes king so much as it suspects that because of his age he will not last long and his brother Nayef will take over..

Jordan’s departure from Riyadh in the second half of October presents President Bush with two problems. It signals a divorce between Washington and the Sudairi branch of the Saudi royal family. Until he fell ill, the senior Sudairi, King Fahd was a trusted ally of America for most of his reign. However, his six full brothers are reluctant to step into his pro-American shoes.

The second problem is that the United States will have no ambassador in Riyadh before early 2005 during a very sensitive period in US-Saudi relations. Because of the lengthy legislative procedures for naming an ambassador, not enough time is left before next year’s presidential election to name a new envoy to the crucial post.

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