[A-List] Prince Bandar and King Abdullah
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Sun Apr 29 00:48:34 MDT 2007
April 29, 2007
A Saudi Prince Tied to Bush Is Sounding Off-Key
By HELENE COOPER and JIM RUTENBERG
WASHINGTON, April 28 — No foreign diplomat has been closer or had more
access to President Bush, his family and his administration than the
magnetic and fabulously wealthy Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi
Prince Bandar has mentored Mr. Bush and his father through three wars
and the broader campaign against terrorism, reliably delivering —
sometimes in the Oval Office — his nation's support for crucial Middle
East initiatives dependent on the regional legitimacy the Saudis could
bring, as well as timely warnings of Saudi regional priorities that
might put it into apparent conflict with the United States. Even after
his 22-year term as Saudi ambassador ended in 2005, he still seemed
the insider's insider. But now, current and former Bush administration
officials are wondering if the longtime reliance on him has begun to
outlive its usefulness.
Bush administration officials have been scratching their heads over
steps taken by Prince Bandar's uncle, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia,
that have surprised them by going against the American playbook, after
receiving assurances to the contrary from Prince Bandar during secret
trips he made to Washington.
For instance, in February, King Abdullah effectively torpedoed plans
by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a high-profile peace summit
meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the
Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, by brokering a power-sharing
agreement with Mr. Abbas's Fatah and Hamas that did not require Hamas
to recognize Israel or forswear violence. The Americans had believed,
after discussions with Prince Bandar, that the Saudis were on board
with the strategy of isolating Hamas.
American officials also believed, again after speaking with Prince
Bandar, that the Saudis might agree to direct engagement with Israel
as part of a broad American plan to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian
peace talks. King Abdullah countermanded that plan.
Most bitingly, during a speech before Arab heads of state in Riyadh
three weeks ago, the king condemned the American invasion of Iraq as
"an illegal foreign occupation." The Bush administration, caught off
guard, was infuriated, and administration officials have found Prince
Bandar hard to reach since.
Since the Iraq war and the attendant plummeting of America's image in
the Muslim world, King Abdullah has been striving to set a more
independent and less pro-American course, American and Arab officials
said. And that has steered America's relationship with its staunchest
Arab ally into uncharted waters. Prince Bandar, they say, may no
longer be able to serve as an unerring beacon of Saudi intent.
"The problem is that Bandar has been pursuing a policy that was music
to the ears of the Bush administration, but was not what King Abdullah
had in mind at all," said Martin S. Indyk, a former United States
ambassador to Israel who is now head of the Brookings Institution's
Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
Of course it is ultimately the king — and not the prince — who makes
the final call on policy. More than a dozen associates of Prince
Bandar, including personal friends and Saudi officials who spoke on
condition of anonymity, said that if his counsel has led to the recent
misunderstandings, it is due to his longtime penchant for leaving room
in his dispatches for friends to hear what they want to hear. That
approach, they said, is catching up to the prince as new tensions
emerge between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Bandar, son of one of the powerful seven sons born to the favorite
wife of Saudi Arabia's founding king, "needs to personally regroup and
figure out how to put Humpty Dumpty together again," one associate
Robert Jordan, a former Bush administration ambassador to Saudi
Arabia, said the Saudis' mixed signals have come at a time when King
Abdullah — who has ruled the country since 1995 but became king only
in 2005 after the death of his brother, Fahd — has said he does not
want to go down in history as Mr. Bush's Arab Tony Blair. "I think he
feels the need as a kind of emerging leader of the Arab world right
now to maintain a distance," he said.
Mr. Jordan said that although the United States and Saudi Arabia "have
different views on how to get there," the countries still share the
same long-term goals for the region and remain at heart strong allies.
An administration spokesman, Gordon D. Johndroe, said none of the
current issues threatened the relationship. "We may have differences
on issues now and then," he said, "but we remain close allies."
Or, as Saleh al-Kallab, a former minister of information in Jordan,
put it, "The relationship between the United States and the Arab
regimes is like a Catholic marriage where you can have no divorce."
But there can be separation. And several associates of Prince Bandar
acknowledge that he feels caught between the opposing pressure of the
king and that of his close friends in the Bush administration. It is a
relationship that Prince Bandar has fostered with great care and
attention to detail over the years, making himself practically
indispensable to Mr. Bush, his family and his aides.
A few nights after he resigned his post as secretary of state two
years ago, Colin L. Powell answered a ring at his front door. Standing
outside was Prince Bandar, then Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the
United States, with a 1995 Jaguar. Mr. Powell's wife, Alma, had once
mentioned that she missed their 1995 Jaguar, which she and her husband
had traded in. Prince Bandar had filed that information away, and
presented the Powells that night with an identical, 10-year-old model.
The Powells kept the car — a gift that the State Department said was
legal — but recently traded it away.
The move was classic Bandar, who has been referred to as Bandar Bush,
attending birthday celebrations, sending notes in times of personal
crisis and entertaining the Bushes or top administration officials at
sumptuous dinner parties at Prince Bandar's opulent homes in McLean,
Va., and Aspen, Colo.
He has invited top officials to pizza and movies out at a mall in
suburban Virginia — and then rented out the movie theater (candy
served chair-side, in a wagon) and the local Pizza Hut so he and his
guests could enjoy themselves in solitude. He is said to feel a strong
sense of loyalty toward Mr. Bush's father dating to the Persian Gulf
war, which transferred to the son, whom he counseled about
international diplomacy during Mr. Bush's first campaign for
After the Sept. 11 attacks, as the United States learned that 15 of
the 19 hijackers were Saudi and focused on the strict Wahhabi school
of Islam that informed them and their leader and fellow Saudi, Osama
bin Laden, Prince Bandar took a public role in assuring the Americans
that his nation would cooperate in investigating and combating
anti-American terrorism. He also helped arrange for more than a
hundred members of the bin Laden family to be flown out of the United
Even since he left the Saudi ambassador's post in Washington and
returned to Saudi Arabia two years ago, Prince Bandar has continued
his long courtship, over decades, of the Bush family and Vice
President Dick Cheney, flying into Washington for unofficial meetings
at the White House. He cruises in without consulting the Saudi Embassy
in Washington, where miffed officials have sometimes said they had no
idea that he was in town — a perceived slight that contributed to the
resignation of his cousin Prince Turki al-Faisal as ambassador to the
United States last year. He has been succeeded by Adel al-Jubeir, who
is said to have strong support from the king.
Prince Turki was never able to match the role of Prince Bandar, whom
the president, vice president and other officials regularly consult on
every major Middle East initiative — from the approach to Iran to the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Iraq. Prince Bandar played a
crucial role in securing the use of the Prince Sultan Air Base at Al
Kharj, roughly 70 miles outside Riyadh, in the attacks led by the
United States against Afghanistan and Iraq, despite chafing within his
He helped in the negotiations that led to Libya giving up its weapons
programs, a victory for Mr. Bush. He pledged to protect the world
economy from oil shocks after the invasion, the White House said in
2004, but he denied a report, by the author Bob Woodward, that he had
promised to stabilize oil prices in time for Mr. Bush's re-election
The cause of the latest friction in the American-Saudi relationship
began in 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. The Saudis agreed with the
Bush view of Saddam Hussein as a threat, but voiced concern about
post-invasion contingencies and the fate of the Sunni minority. When
it became clear that the administration was committed to invading
Iraq, Prince Bandar took a lead role in negotiations between the Bush
administration and Saudi officials over securing bases and staging
But Saudi frustration has mounted over the past four years, as the
situation in Iraq has deteriorated. King Abdullah was angry that the
Bush administration ignored his advice against de-Baathification and
the disbanding of the Iraqi military. He became more frustrated as
America's image in the Muslim world deteriorated, because Saudi Arabia
is viewed as a close American ally.
Tensions between King Abdullah and top Bush officials escalated
further when Mr. Bush announced a new energy initiative to reduce the
nation's dependence on foreign oil during his 2006 State of the Union
address, and announced new initiatives in that direction this year.
Both American and Saudi officials say that King Abdullah clearly
values — and uses — Prince Bandar's close relationship with the White
House. And that, associates said, will dictate what Prince Bandar can
"Don't expect the man, because he happens to have an American
background, not to play the game for his home team," said William
Simpson, Prince Bandar's biographer, and a former classmate at the
Royal Air Force College in England. "The home team is Saudi Arabia."
Michael Slackman and Hassan M. Fattah contributed from Riyadh, Saudi
Arabia, and Steven R. Weisman from Washington.
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