Prince Bandar bin Sultan Rides back to Center Stage
Prince Bandar bin Sultan‘s outstanding qualifications as diplomatic and intelligence ace, with unmatched foreign experience and connections – especially in Washington – made him the perfect fit for Saudi strongman, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MbS)’s ambitious plans.
At 69, after a long disappearance, Bandar was restored by MbS to a role familiar to him for decades, center stage of national and regional affairs. His job: Governor of the ultra-sensitive northern province of Tabuk, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources reveal. Tabuk is home to the Northwest Area Command at King Abdul Aziz Military City, and the Royal Saudi Land Forces 7th Armor, 8th Infantry, 12th armor and 14th Infantry Brigades. Attached to the military city is the King Faisal Air Base, which guards the Kingdom’s northern borders. Tabuk sits strategically astride the cross routes of the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aqaba and the northern Red Sea. This location will gain vastly in importance when it becomes the site of MbS’s grandiose $500-billion plan to build the ultra-modern Neom mega-city that will link Saudi Arabia with Egypt, Israel and Jordan.
The crown prince has chosen the hugely experienced Prince Bandar to take charge of this centerpiece of his Vision 2030 which is designed to make the kingdom a world-class modern power.
Bandar still retains the top-class connections he cultivated in American political, intelligence and financial circles in his two decades as Saudi ambassador to Washington (1983-2005). He can also boast valuable regional ties from his stints as national security adviser to King Khaled and director of Saudi intelligence service under King Abdallah ((2005-2014). He was close enough to President George W. Bush at one time to be described as “the architect of US policy in Iraq and the Middle East.”
But although more comfortable in a suit than a robe, Bandar is not a stranger in the capitals of the Middle East either. In 2005, he visited Damascus and met President Bashar Assad, and two years later, he was in Tehran to discuss the crisis in Lebanon. His final years as top diplomat and intelligence figure were crowned by a daring venture that was restricted for years to classified documents: the kingdom’s first ties with Israeli intelligence. Those ties have since burgeoned and are no longer hushed up.
Making the versatile Bandar linchpin of his big plans marks MbS’s wish to further cement Riyadh’s relations with the Trump administration, while also nurturing ties with fellow Arab rulers and the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem. Useful too are ex-ambassador Bandar’s international financial and trade connections.
And finally, according to DEBKA Weekly’s sources, the Crown Prince is also looking to stabilize his position in Riyadh, which is not as strong as it appears abroad. He could do with some shoring up in domestic politics, which an old political hand like Prince Bandar could provide. MbS enjoys the unqualified support of his father, King Salman, but grumbles are proliferating in some powerful princely circles.Their criticism has not allowed him to choose a deputy as the next crown prince who will eventually follow him to the throne. Some princely dissenters even refuse to talk to him – either because they find his manner offensive or condemn his policies, especially Saudi intervention in Yemen and his vigorous campaign against Iran.
The crown prince has not been forgiven for rounding up hundreds of prominent figures last November and incarcerating them in the Ritz Carlton Hotel for weeks until they paid up. He is rumored to have condemned many of those released to indefinite house arrest, which he justifies by his purported anti-corruption drive.
Crown Prince Muhammed understands that gaining the respect of his fellow princes is essential – not just for the present, but for the future too when he becomes king. Prince Bandar’s appointment – and his acceptance – of a top post will give the crown prince a valuable boost domestically as well some necessary ballast for his rule.