Bandar: the end of the mujahideen prince?

Bandar: the end of the mujahideen prince?
Analysis: Stripped of formal power by the new Saudi king, the former ambassador to US and mastermind policies on Afghanistan and Syria ponders his next move.
4 min read
31 January, 2015
Bandar's power has waned, but he still has influence [AFP/Getty]
Prince Bandar bin Sultan was this week dumped by King Salman from his position in the Saudi government. It brings a close to the political career of one of the most mysterious and lengendary figures of Arab politics. Or does it?

Despite his removal as national security director on Thursday in a major shake-up by the new king, a figure like Bandar will not be content with a rocking chair at his retirement home, away from all the international glory and relations he built and shaped.

Bandar is for years been a major figure who is still difficult to sidestep, with the ability and confidence to be in the front row of decision-makers, not just in the Saudi royal family but in the world at large.

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At the end of 2008, Saudis were shocked to hear rumours that Bandar was preparing to remove King Abdullah when he returned from 22 years service as ambassador in Washington.

The scenario recalled events of decades before, when King Saud was impeached by his brother Faisal, which led to skirmishes by military units loyal to the royal rivals.

Perhaps as a result, Bandar was parachuted into a new government postion - as the chairman of the National Security Council. The coup plot was forgotten. The Saudis moved on.

However, in November 2013, the Financial Times newspaper revisited the affair, suggesting the plot was indeed true and had the backing of the US administration, which allegedly supported a quick transition of power to the so-called "third generation" of House of Saud princes.

Whatever the truth, the episode goes some way to explaining how big Bandar had become.

A man among princes

But Bandar was not always destined to be a big player. The tone of his skin, some have suggested, would have held him back. His father, who rose to defence minister under Abdullah, did not coach him in the ways of politics. But through grit and natural intelligence he surpassed other more favoured princes.

His reputation was cemented by his role in a deal to buy F-15 jets from the US in the early 1980s. Bandar knew that sealing that deal would secure him a high-level position, and that is exactly what happened: Bandar was appointed ambassador to Washington.

Bandar understood that he had to market himself as an ally with the ability to serve US interests around the world.

He demostrated this by aiding the US in its desire to support the Arab mujahideen groups in Afghanistan in their war against the Soviet Union, swelling their ranks with criminals and radicals released from Saudi prisons.

Years later he was able to use his knowledge of Afghanistan to aid the US as it prepared to invade in 2001 and destroy the same groups it helped create. He was a frequent guest of George W Bush during these times.

One trick pony?

Bandar's most recent pre-occupation was Syria, an issue he attempted to resolve in the same manner as Afghanistan.

However, the job in Syria was not as easy for the "prince of mujahideen", as he was now known. This could not be presented as a war between infidels and the faithful, as in Afghanistan. Syria was a sectarian war.

Nevertheless Bandar, in collaboration with the interior ministry, devised a policy to offer young Saudi criminals a simple choice: stay in jail, or fight in Syria. Many chose death over life behind bars.

Bandar also sent arms to Syria to support those known in the Western media as moderate rebels. But many of those weapons ended up in the hands of warlords, profiteers and groups that sympathised with al-Qaeda.
     Bandar offered young Saudi criminals a simple choice: stay in jail, or fight in Syria.

The results are for all to see - a civil war that expanded into a multi-national conflict, the rise of extremist groups such as the Islamic State and political fallout affecting the GCC, the region and beyond.

His plan failed, and the Syrian issue was handed to the now-deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef.

Bandar did not achieve much since his return from Washington. Indeed, the fact that Abdullah kept him close was to give backing to his son, Mutab bin Abdullah, according to some source.

A new title of consultant would be befitting of Bandar. After all the years of accumulated experience, political leaders continue to ask for his counsel and advice. He will give it but his hands are now tied, and his power has waned.