The appointment of a new Saudi intelligence chief last Thursday, July 19, raised hardly a ripple in the turbulence sweeping the Middle East from Syria, the red alarms triggered by Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons, and President Barack Obama’s warning that he would be held personally accountable if they were used.
Notwithstanding media inattention, the intelligence reshuffle in Riyadh is of the highest import and relevance for the current regional turmoil. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence analysts delve into its causes and project its consequences.
Far-reaching change in Riyadh was signaled by the release of two royal decrees on July 19: One relieved Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz of his position as Director of Saudi General Intelligence; the second appointed Prince Bandar bin Sultan in his place.
Bandar additionally retains his current post of General Secretary of the National Security Council, held since he ended his long stint as Saudi Ambassador to Washington in 2005, while Prince Muqrin was kicked upstairs to a largely nominal position as “Adviser to the Royal Court and the King’s Special Envoy.”
Bandar – “The peasant prince”
Bandar was long Saudi Arabia’s best-known face in the West. During his 22 years as ambassador to the US, he was a welcome visitor to the White House, a popular figure in the House and the Senate and on first name terms with members of the Washington media fraternity.
A consummate diplomat, Bandar rose high above his low birth – in Saudi terms, he was born “on the wrong side of the blanket,” because his mother was a Sudanese “concubine.”
Yet he accomplished more for the kingdom than any other Saudi princely figure of his generation.
It was Bandar who in the late 1970s persuaded the Reagan administration to sell Saudi Arabia AWACs in the face of strong resistance in congress and, in the late 1980s, clinched the deal with China for the purchase of the strategic CSS2 missiles.
In the 1990s, when his half-brother Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was out of favor at court, King Fahd enlisted him for mediation missions in the Arab world and relations with the Palestinians.
In 1991, for instance, it was Bandar not the foreign minister who represented Riyadh at the Arab-Israeli peace summit in Madrid sponsored by the first President George Bush. But he took care to keep a low profile so as not to rub Prince Saud up the wrong way.
When he ended his tenure as ambassador to Washington, Bandar sailed into the high post of Secretary General of the National Security Council, a new high-powered job carved out for him by King Abdullah to make good use of his talents and also to please Crown Prince Sultan, Bandar’s father.
An impressive princely resumé
Bandar continued to shun the limelight – partly because of the confidential nature of his work and partly to avoid arousing the envy and antagonism of his peers – especially the foreign minister, son of a king and scion of a rival branch of the royal family.
His consistently missed public events, often on the pretext of ill health or surgery (such as a back operation). At the same time, word of his back-room activities, especially in the key field of intelligence, was leaked to Western and Middle East media through roundabout routes.
He was revealed, for instance, in 2006, to be maintaining contacts with Israeli Mossad chiefs and even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for the most part in Jordan.
He was also found to be secretly managing Saudi sponsorship of opposition groups fighting to overthrow Bashar Assad. He also organized aid channels to the Free Syrian Army-FSA. This was in line with Riyadh’s overarching objective to weaken Iran’s influence in the region by undermining its foremost ally.
Bandar’s latest coup was the transaction he secretly negotiated with China for the sale of highly-advanced nuclear-capable missiles which Riyadh sought for its arsenal against a nuclear Iran.
Bandar’s prospects of reaching the highest royal rank – monarch or even crown prince – are virtually nil, in reverse proportion to his talents, due to his “inferior” origins as the son of Prince Sultan and a “black slave.”
But he has made good thanks to his virtual adoption by his father’s most powerful wife, Hussa Al-Saudri, mother of the seven legitimate Sudairi princes. She admired him enough to open doors for him to gain equal status with her own sons.
Split over Saudi nuclear policy
The royal family is sorely split over the policy the oil kingdom needs to follow against a nuclear Iran. This is the burning topic at issue in Riyadh today, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in the Gulf report.
The ousted intelligence chief Prince Muqrin sides with Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in advocating reliance on harsh international sanctions to rein Iran in. They essentially go along with President Obama’s strong opposition to Saudi Arabia developing an independent nuclear capability instead of depending on America’s pledge of a nuclear umbrella.
The king takes the opposite stance: he is strongly in favor of his country developing nuclear independence to challenge Iran’s bid for regional pre-eminence. He is prepared to jump into a nuclear race with Iran even if results in letting the proliferation genie loose on the entire region.
It was in pursuit of this objective that the king sent Bandar to Beijing in recent months to buy Chinese-made nuclear-capable missiles for upgrading Saudi Arabia’s deterrent strength against Iran. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 545 of June 15: Riyadh to Beijing: We’ll Pay for Nuclear-Capable Ballistic Missiles with All the Oil You Need).
Bandar’s success in bringing off this mission raised him over the heads of Prince Muqrin and certainly Prince Saud as King Abdullah’s choice to head the powerful intelligence service.
The Sudairis collect record number of power points
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi experts contend that domestic considerations weighed heavily in this appointment. Differences over Saudi nuclear policy alone would not have prompted this radical change in intelligence leadership because Muqrin would not have gone against the king on policy whatever his personal views. Over the years, there was never the slightest whisper of friction between the ousted intelligence chief and Abdullah. Therefore, another factor was at work.
It was this: The Defense Minister, Prince Salman’s sudden accession to crown prince in June 2012 catapulted the Saudi royal family into a fierce succession battle. He moved up as first in line to the throne upon the unexpected death of Crown Prince Nayef shortly after the long-expected demise of Sultan.
Crown Prince Salman, the most dynamic of the Sudairi brothers, quickly seized the chance to regroup and revive his branch of the royal family after nearly a decade of declining influence dating from the Sudairi King Fahd’s long years of lingering incapacity before he died in 2006.
By removing obstacles to the Sudairi climb back to a place in the sun, Salman is causing ructions in the sprawling royal family.
It took him just a month after he was named crown prince to achieve a glittering triumph: Brother Bandar became this royal branch’s first intelligence chief, holding in his grasp the most powerful tool for the shaping of the kingdom’s military, foreign and counter-terror policies.
Led by Salman, the Sudairis now control the three most powerful levers in the oil kingdom: Heir to the throne, defense and Intelligence.
And King Abdullah who is close to 90 has acquired a couple of stalwart allies for his drive to make Saudi Arabia the first Arab nuclear power. That may be his most noteworthy legacy.