Last week, Saudi King Abdullah took off for his palace in Casablanca, Morocco, where he usually spends the hot summer months. Before he left, he handed over the reins of government to his half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan.
Saturday, July 12, Sultan as acting monarch, decided to send his son, national security adviser Prince Bandar, to Moscow, to arrive on Monday, July 14, and finalize the framework of a massive arms transaction with Russia.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources disclose that the Crown Prince did not clear the transaction with the king, although it had been hanging fire since it was negotiated by him and Vladimir Putin, then president of Russia, in Moscow on November 11, 2007.
Neither did he inform Abdullah that Prince Bandar would be the emissary for signing the deal on behalf of the kingdom. In fact, for the last eighteen months, Bandar, a long-time ambasador to Washington, has been out of favor at court and well outside any circles of influence.
Sultan’s action therefore was seen in Riyadh as a dual assault on Abdullah’s royal authority.
First, he laid claim to superior authority to that of the king in military matters and defense; and second, he challenged his son, Bandar’s dismissal from the policy-making echelon of government.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military experts disclose that, while the purchases from Russia would have helped diversify the kingdom’s arms suppliers, the Saudi army does not really need the items Bandar signed for in Moscow. His purchases, worth $2.4 billion, included at least 100 BMP-3 combat vehicles, 150 T-90 tanks and 160 Mi-17, Mi-26 and Mi-35 helicopters.
A run-of-the-mill arms contract sensationalized
The transaction might have gone largely unnoticed were it not for a sensational story run by the Russian daily business newspaper Kommersant. The paper reported from “diplomatic sources” that Bandar and prime minister Putin had signed an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $2.4 billion and that the Saudi prince had held out the prospect of even more profitable contracts with Riyadh, if Moscow were to “cut back its cooperation with Tehran.”
The implication was that Saudi Arabia had held out the lure of a second arms deal over and above and much larger than the one signed, provided Moscow withdrew its nuclear assistance from, and halted sales of weapons to Tehran.
Some Gulf sources went further and claimed Bandar had offered Putin a strategic pact between their two countries that would also cover coordination in international oil markets – all in return for Moscow backing Riyadh instead of Tehran.
A spokesman for the Russian prime minister denied the report. “Any claims that military-technical cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia is in any way linked to the Russian-Iranian dialogue are inappropriate and do not correspond to reality,” the Interfax news agency quoted Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.
No denial or even mention of the story came from Bandar’s delegation.
Gulf sources report that the crown prince’s son had no authority from his father to enter into far-reaching negotiations with the Russian prime minister on strategic relations between the kingdom and Russia, or anything beyond signing an arms purchasing framework transaction.
Sultan and Bandar acted behind the king’s back
The Kommersant report came from a Russian source, apparently dipping a toe in the water to test Riyadh’s response, as well as trolling for kudos for Moscow by presenting Riyadh as turning to the Russians for strategic help against Iran rather than the Americans.
All the same, King Abdullah and his court took the news badly.
Tuesday, July 15, the king arrived in Spain on the eve of a three-day international conference in Madrid he had sponsored personally to promote dialogue among the world’s main religions. Abdullah and Spanish King Juan Carlos addressed the opening session Wednesday.
Saudi officials said Spain was chosen to host the conference because of its historical symbolism as a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in peace under Islamic rule between the 8th and 13th centuries.
However, the talk in the royal Saudi retinue was not about inter-faith relations, but rather the often recurring palace intrigue which had sprung up in the monarch’s absence from Riyadh.
Abdullah was furious at having to learn from a Russian publication what the Crown Prince and his son had been up to behind his back and without his consent while he was away.
The king was forced to acknowledge that he cannot manage without the Crown Prince’s support. He will therefore vent his anger on Bandar the son rather than Sultan.
As for the arms contracts with Moscow, the Saudis have a long history of letting their foreign weapons transactions languish and remitting payment later rather thans sooner.
So the Bandar-Putin deal is more an irritant than a real bone of contention.