Saudi Arabia politics: Bandar’s back

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud, the head of Saudi Arabia’s National Security Council (NSC), was reported by the Saudi Press Agency to have arrived in Riyadh from an unspecified destination on October 14th. This was the first official reference to Prince Bandar’s whereabouts since he disappeared from public view almost two years ago, without explanation. His absence prompted a welter of lurid speculation; his return will likewise raise questions about possible shifts in Saudi domestic politics and about the kingdom’s approach to sensitive regional issues.

The aura surrounding Prince Bandar has arisen from the special status that he enjoyed for 22 years as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US. He gained privileged access to successive US presidents, and was particularly close to the Bush family. He was recalled to Saudi Arabia in 2005 to head the NSC, and was confirmed in that post 12 months ago, although he had not been seen in public in Saudi Arabia since the end of 2008. Several theories circulated about the possible reasons for his absence—including illness, a power struggle within the al-Saud ruling family and policy differences over Saudi relations with Syria and Iran (his disappearance was followed by a dramatic rapprochement between the Saudi king, Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud and the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad).

Welcoming party

The report of his return to Riyadh gave no indication of where Prince Bandar had been or of his future plans. However, it did provide a long list of the dignitaries present at the airport to greet him, including the most senior security figures in the kingdom—Prince Miqrin bin Abdel-Aziz, the chief of general intelligence; Prince Khaled bin Sultan (Bandar’s half-brother), the deputy defence and aviation  minister; and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the deputy interior minister.

Since Prince Bandar has been out of circulation there have been a number of significant developments in domestic Saudi politics and with respect to regional security. The king has taken steps to clarify the succession question by naming the interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz, as first deputy prime minister, a position that has traditionally been seen as a preparation for becoming crown prince. Resolving this matter has acquired some urgency in light of the concerns about the health of Crown Prince Sultan, who is back in Morocco after a brief interlude in Saudi Arabia following hospital treatment abroad. On the security front, Saudi troops made an incursion into northern Yemen against Houthi rebels at the end of 2009, taking relatively high casualties. The difficulties that the Saudi forces faced in Yemen appear to have influenced the king’s decision to sanction a major weapons deal with the US—the first such purchase since Prince Bandar’s recall from Washington.

Syrian vitriol

In the months preceding his disappearance Prince Bandar had been the target of a stream of vitriolic attacks in the Syrian media, which had accused him of backing Sunni Islamist groups in Lebanon and Syria in order to stir up sectarian tensions and undermine Hizbullah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese Shia movement, and weaken the Assad regime. These attacks ceased after the reconciliation between King Abdullah and Mr Assad, and Syria and Saudi Arabia have co-operated closely in supporting the current national unity government in Lebanon. This joint endeavour has become complicated in recent months by the tensions over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is thought to be preparing to issue indictments against Hizbullah members for involvement in the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the Sunni Muslim former prime minister of Lebanon (and protégé of the Saudi royal family).

King Abdullah and an increasingly influential Prince Miqrin appear to be committed to a policy of cultivating close relations with Syria and keeping lines of communication open to Iran (King Abdullah spoke on the telephone to Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, prior to the latter’s recent visit to Lebanon). Prince Bandar had been associated with a more confrontational approach, but there is as yet no indication that his return to Saudi Arabia signifies that any radical change in policy is being considered.