It took Prince Bandar bin Sultan almost four months from his resignation as Saudi ambassador to Washington to land a job in the new King Abdullah’s administration. But it may well have been worth waiting for.
On October 16, he was appointed secretary-general of the Saudi national security council with the rank of cabinet minister.
He already had personal ministerial rank; it was awarded him in 1995, when the late king Fahd named him ambassador to the US. But the appointment is important for jumping him into the second tier of the royal hierarchy; whether or not he can make it into the top row depends largely on his performance in the new job and his ability to imbue it with strong meaning.
On October 18, Bandar was received by the king and thanked him for the honor. Abdullah then outlined his remit. Photographed after the audience, the prince looked older than his 56 years and frail compared with his last appearance before leaving Washington. Rumors of ill health swirled around him in the past year, although no ailment that might impair his ability to perform his duties was ever confirmed.
His appointment to the NSC ends the speculation about his next appointment that was rife after he resigned as ambassador. Some expected him to take over the Saudi security service (parallel to the US CIA), a job that has not been filled since Prince Nawaf was forced by ill health to quit in January 2005. Others suggested he would become minister of interior, a portfolio held by his uncle Prince Nayef, who claims to be third in line to the throne after his brother, the defense minister Prince Sultan.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly dismissed these speculations in issue 213 of July 8, 2005 (What’s up with Prince Bandar in Washington?).
Bandar as NSC secretary general will serve under its head, the king, and deputy, crown prince Sultan. He has landed in the thick of the power contest among the third generation of royals, the 50-60 year olds who are grandsons of the Saudi monarchy’s founder, Ibn Saud.
The national security council was established by King Faisal in 1975 for functions similar to the American prototype. His assassination transformed it into a half-dead bureaucratic framework subject to the ministry of interior, instead of an influential and proactive instrument of policy.
Bandar is up, Nayef down on the royal seesaw
By appointing Bandar, the king elevated the NSC to just such a central instrument of policy-making.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi experts stress the king has taken the critical step of removing the council from the ministry of interior and placing it directly under himself.
The royal decree also names the ministers of interior, foreign affairs, health and education as council members, together with representatives of the defense ministry, the National Guard, the general intelligence agency and representatives of the offices responsible for services and infrastructure.
The NSC has been empowered to execute royal domestic and foreign policy with focus on social, political, economic, military, security and international affairs. Its mandate covers the kingdom’s national security in its broadest sense. Therefore, the restructured NSC has been transformed into the most powerful policy-making body in the kingdom.
If the new secretary-general Prince Bandar avoids being caught up in internal power plays at court and is backed up by the king and the crown prince, he will be well placed to hold a key instrument of government in the palm of his hand.
But the chances of his getting away without opposition are slim.
Before the ink was dry on the royal appointment, certain Saudi newspapers hurried to belittle the NSC and denigrate its new secretary general. The council’s powers were described as limited to the war against terror.
The interior minister’s inner circle is generally credited with planting these reports. Prince Nayef is the big loser from the new set-up. He has been made a member of the NSC when he would have expected to be top man. He was also disappointed in his campaign to be named second deputy prime minister, i.e. number three in the royal hierarchy. Shortly after Abdullah was crowned in August, Prince Nayef was told to forget about the appointment.
His ambition has revived the oft-recurring rivalry between the King and the Sudeiri brothers, of which he is one. But Abdullah is determined to clip Nayef’s wings.
If the newly-empowered NSC takes off as the kingdom’s hub of power, Bandar’s standing as its key executive will shoot up. Prince Nayef’s standing will correspondingly wane, together with his expectations of succeeding Abdullah and Sultan.