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Implications of Bandar Bin Sultan’s Return to Power

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Hassan Ahmadian, PhD Candidate
Department of Regional Studies, University of Tehran

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the son of the former crown prince of Saudi Arabia who was also his country’s former ambassador to Washington from 1983 to 2005, has been appointed by the Saudi King Abdullah as head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency. There are three points about Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency and Prince Bandar which have caused analysts raise a couple of questions about this appointment. Firstly, since its inception, the Saudi intelligence has been mostly focused on internal functions – at least up to the present time – and has played no practical role in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. Secondly, Prince Bandar has gained most of his experience and expertise when working in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy sphere as well as through international dealings in the Cold War period and afterwards and has never been assigned to a major post inside the country. Thirdly, there have been powerful rumors that the main reason behind Bandar’s return from Washington was his differences with King Abdullah over how to interact with the United States’ regional policies. Therefore, the question arises as to why under presence circumstances, he has been appointed as the country’s intelligence chief. To answer such questions, five points will be explained here as possible implications of his return to power. Two points are related to Saudi Arabia’s domestic policies while three points pertain to regional developments. Due to importance of regional developments and their impact on this appointment, we will begin with regional implications.

The first implication of this appointment is the narrowing gap between domestic and foreign approaches in Riyadh’s security policy. This means that being faced with many potential and actual threats in domestic and international areas in the years of popular uprisings, and since such threats know no limits, Riyadh has been gradually narrowing the gap between its internal and external security approaches. As a result, a person is appointed as head of the intelligence, who in addition to domestic experiences has good experience at regional and even international levels as well. Neither Prince Bandar’s overall experiences, nor his adventurist spirit allow him to be contained in a merely domestic capacity. King Abdullah is sure to be completely aware of this reality.

The second implication is the centralized nature of Saudi Arabia’s security approach to regional cases and developments. As a country which has always been willing for the status quo to be maintained in the region, Saudi Arabia has been regularly taken a diplomatic as well as economic approach to the issues in the Middle East, in addition to its customary security approach, and has based its regional policies accordingly. However, in its new political era, the country has decided to maintain the status quo in some countries while trying to change the existing situation in certain other countries. As a result, Riyadh has been following a centralized security approach to regional developments. This is why Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, which was previously used for domestic purposes, has had to take its concerns beyond the borders.

Thirdly, Saudi Arabia is currently doing its best to forge international consensus against the government of the incumbent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Bandar bin Sultan was quite successful in the 1980s in his efforts to coordinate Washington’s policies with Riyadh in the face of the occupation of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union. He was also successful in convincing China and many other regional states to cooperate with that policy. Finally, he was a party to the West’ efforts to convince the last leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev to take the Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. His appointment as head of Saudi intelligence agency means that he may have been missioned to follow on the case of Syria from within Saudi Arabia. To attract cooperation of China and Russia on Syria is among important tasks which have been assigned to the Saudi intelligence in the first year that it has taken its operations beyond borders.

In addition to regional implications, which have naturally played a role in Prince Bandar’s return to power, there are two more issues at domestic level which should be taken into consideration. Firstly, appointment of Bandar shows that the power struggle in Saudi Arabia is being transferred from the second generation of Saudi princes to their third generation. This means that whenever King Abdullah assigns a post to one branch of King Abdul Aziz’s offspring, he has to give some posts to others to keep the balance. As a result, appointment of King Bandar as head of Saudi intelligence agency was in return for appointing Prince Mutaib ibn Abdullah as head of the Saudi National Guard. Keeping a balance between various branches of Al Saud family is one of the main challenges facing Saudi government right now.

The second domestic implication of the appointment of Prince Bandar bin Sultan is that division of power has reached an unprecedented level in Saudi Arabia. Division of power will inevitably lead to segmentation of power and this has already left its mark on the general structure of Saudi government. Based on available reports, it has become quite common among Saudi princes to claim a share of the power pie. Giving new posts to Saudi princes, however, is not a solution to this problem, but it will even worsen the existing rivalry and, finally, lead to more segmentation of power among Saudi princes. Although it is hard to predict the final outcome of this situation, it cannot be very attractive for Al Saudi family.

On the whole, the return of Bandar bin Sultan to power after being behind the scenes for seven years, is indicative of the fact that major changes have been made to the approach taken to domestic and regional developments by Saudi leaders, and more importantly, to quality of interaction with these developments. In addition, this is also a sign of growing power struggle among the third generation of Al Saud princes. These factors have joined hands to make King Abdullah, who had already summoned Bandar from Washington in 2005 (the year he became the king) to reassign him to a new post and, this time, a domestic one. It seems that Bandar’s new responsibility will lead him to carry out many foreign missions outside the country during his term in office.

Key Words: Bandar Bin Sultan’s Return, Saudi Arabia, Implications, Intelligence Agency, Internal Functions, Foreign Policy, Regional Developments, Ahmadian

More By Hassan Ahmadian:

*Egyptian Army and the Second Republic: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Egyptian_Army_and_the_Second_Republic.htm

*The Truth Behind Saudi Arabia’s Fear of a Nuclear Iran: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/The_Truth_behind_Saudi_Arabia’s_Fear_of_a_Nuclear_Iran.htm

*The Onset of Regional Faceoff between Egypt and Saudi Arabia: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/The_Onset_of_Regional_Faceoff_between_Egypt_and_Saudi_Arabia.htm

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