The diplomat returns to politics in Saudi Arabia

10 October 2012

King Abdullah has brought one of the most well-regarded figures in Saudi politics back to the forefront of securing its interests in an increasingly unstable region

In 2000, the elevation of Bashar al-Assad to the position of President of Syria was to some degree smoothed by support from Saudi Arabia. Today, there is a telling sign of how Riyadh is reacting to the change sweeping the region. One of the men responsible for helping to bolster Al-Assad’s position back then, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has become one of the key figures in Riyadh’s increasingly overt strategy to have him removed.

King Abdullah brought Prince Bandar back to the forefront of Saudi foreign policy in July, when he was appointed head of the Saudi Intelligence Agency. It was the latest sign that Riyadh was taking proactive steps to secure its interests in an increasingly unstable period for the region and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia will be reassessing its relationship with the US. Now, that is more important than ever

Kristian Ulrichsen, London School of Economics

The kingdom’s security objectives will now focus on the removal of Al-Assad in Syria and ensuring that the Syrian civil war does not spill over into neighbouring countries. They will also involve developing diplomatic ties with the new regime in Egypt, minimising what it sees as Iranian interference in Arab states and quelling any signs of domestic discontent.

Domestic security in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia prizes stability. The abrupt decision by the US to drop support for Egypt’s former ruler Hosni Mubarak in the face of domestic protests against his rule in early 2011 caused great angst in Riyadh. Since then, the wave of unrest has only increased and the US has broadly supported regime change in the region after decades of backing the status quo.

“Saudi Arabia has been surrounded on almost all sides by political unrest,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the London School of Economics. That has fed the anxiety about potential spill-over effects domestically, he adds.

The Sunni-dominated kingdom has already had to face domestic security threats. The largely Shia Eastern Province has witnessed a spate of protests and clashes with security forces. So far, these have been blamed on perceived Iranian meddling and have been neutralised. Coupled with this, the ruling Al-Saud family has lost several senior members who had taken a leading role in the government’s handling of the Arab uprising and internal protests.

In June, Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud died, just eight months after his predecessor Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud passed away. Between them, they had been largely responsible for steering Riyadh’s response to the uprisings of the past 18 months.

Prince Nayef, who was also interior minister, had been the architect of the response to the uprising in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia provided troops and promised financial support to the ruling Al-Khalifa family during an uprising of its restive Shia population. He was one of the kingdom’s leading proponents of its hawkish attitude to Iran. Prince Sultan was also deeply involved in Yemen before his death, and the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“There has been a lack of consensus on who should be stepping in and replacing the leadership of the big policy figures,” says one regional political analyst. “That is partly because in the past it has been so driven by personalities rather than government institutions.”

The appointment of Prince Bandar, known as the ‘peasant prince’ because of his early upbringing outside his father’s palace, arguably continues that trend of personality-driven politics. The Saudi Intelligence Agency holds a broad remit of identifying international and domestic threats to Saudi security and its interests. That will give him influence over a wide range of the country’s foreign and domestic security apparatus.

Diplomatic rift between US and Saudi Arabia

Prince Bandar also brings to the role his considerable diplomatic relations with the US, gained from 22 years as Saudi’s ambassador in Washington.

He is considered by many to be one of the kingdom’s most skilled political operators. This will be particularly important as the kingdom tries to heal the diplomatic rift that emerged after the US dropped its support for Mubarak, and allowed him to be swept from office by a popular uprising.

During this period, relations between the two allies soured considerably. When Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain, the US was not informed in advance. A subsequent request from the US to turn back was met with a swift rebuttal by Riyadh.

Since then, a realisation that the two countries have mutual interests in other areas has led to a more pragmatic approach to the relationship. “Saudi Arabia will be reassessing its relationship with the US, and now that is more important than ever,” says Ulrichsen. Prince Bandar’s appointment will be key to this.

Nothing illustrates the importance of this relationship more than Saudi Arabia’s signing of a $29.4bn order for US-made fighter jets in late 2011, part of a larger $60bn arms deal spread over 10-15 years. The deal, intended as a sign of US support for its key regional ally, is a symbolic show of strength as tensions escalate with Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear ambitions.

Lack of confidence

The extent of Riyadh’s regional concerns will be a challenge to any single figure, however. That is where the appointment of Prince Bandar, after several years behind the scenes in Saudi politics, suggests that King Abdullah is struggling to find people he is confident in to achieve Riyadh’s objectives.

One Middle East analyst in Washington says Prince Bandar’s re-emergence could signify that other figures do not yet have the confidence, or perhaps trust, of the king in such serious matters. Even before his appointment to the intelligence agency, Prince Bandar visited China, Pakistan, India and Malaysia in March 2011 to ensure the kingdom’s rulers still had the backing of these international allies, as other regimes were being swept from power during the Arab Uprisings.

Prince Bandar’s re-emergence could signify that other figures do not yet have the confidence of the king

While Prince Salman, who was named Crown Prince in June and has been defence minister since November 2011, has the requisite hardline attitude towards Iran, he does not yet seem to be taking a leading role in security issues. Domestically the prince is considered a reformist, which could allow him to continue in the mildly reformist vein of King Abdullah if he does becomes king, but it is still unclear how the unrest in the Eastern Province has affected that instinct.

High profile

Prince Ahmed, appointed interior minister after Nayef’s death, has been a long-standing deputy at the Interior Ministry, but has a much lower profile than his predecessor and less executive experience. Nayef’s son, Mohammed bin Nayef, is actually considered to have had a more active role in running the ministry as assistant interior minister.

What is clear though, is that Prince Bandar will have an increasingly high-profile role in safeguarding Saudi Arabia’s security objectives for the time being.

Key fact

Saudi Arabia signed a $29.4bn order for US-made fighter jets in late 2011, as part of a larger $60bn arms deal

Source: MEED

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