by Thomas W. Lippman
It might be a mistake to jump to conclusions about the removal of Prince Bandar bin Sultan from his post as chief of Saudi Arabian intelligence. When it comes to senior jobs held by the royals, the Kingdom’s decision-making process is entirely opaque and there is no way to know at this point whether the flamboyant former ambassador to the United States was pushed out or bailed out.
A terse announcement by the official Saudi Press Agency on Tuesday said King Abdullah relieved Bandar of his duties “upon his request.” That’s what the SPA almost always says; sometimes it’s true, sometimes not, but the people involved in such high-level decisions never explain them to the outside world.
In Bandar’s case it might even be true. At the age of 65 he is relatively youthful among senior Saudi princes, but he has nursed various ailments for years and recently was absent from his post for months, reportedly recuperating in Morocco after surgery in the United States.
The standard narrative about Bandar for some time has been that he fell from the king’s favor because he failed to carry out his most urgent mission: to bring about the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an outcome to which King Abdullah is committed. Bandar, who for years was a powerhouse in Washington, was unable to forge a common strategy on Syria with the United States, which is seeking the same outcome. He was unable to unite the disparate Syrian rebel groups or curb the influence among them of radical jihadis. And on a visit to Moscow last summer, of which no details were ever made public, he apparently failed to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to back off from his support of Assad. In February Bandar was relieved of responsibility for Syria, replaced by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the powerful minister of interior, who had made the rounds in Washington a few weeks earlier.
Whether Mohammed can salvage the operation in Syria, where the military trend has clearly been in the government’s favor lately, remains open to doubt, despite assertions from the Saudis and the United States that they got back on the same page when President Barack Obama visited Riyadh last month.
Iran’s Fars News Agency, reporting that Bandar had been “sacked,” appended to its article a photograph of Bandar crossed out by a big red X. “In September,” the Fars article said, 17 Saudi princes “in a letter to King Abdullah protested at Bandar Bin Sultan’s failure in coaxing the US into a war on Syria to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s government.” Could be, but Fars and other Iranian news organs regularly report unsupported nonsense about Saudi Arabia if they think it makes the Saudis look bad.
Bandar apparently retains at least for now his position as head of Saudi Arabia’s National Security Council, although his responsibilities in that post have always been murky. Even if Bandar is in the king’s doghouse, this latest development does not necessarily mean that he is permanently excluded from the inner circles of power. After all, he was appointed to the intelligence job in 2012 after the king dismissed his predecessor, Prince Muqrin bin Abul Aziz. Muqrin not only survived that apparent display of kingly displeasure, he recently was elevated to the position of “deputy crown prince,” putting him second in the line of succession after Abdullah. Even Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, a half-brother of Abdullah who distanced himself from the royal family decades ago by supporting Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and other Arab nationalists, was politically rehabilitated by King Abdullah a few years ago.
As of now, only two things are knowable with certainty about this latest move: Bandar is out as intelligence chief, and has been succeeded by an obscure deputy, Yousef al-Adrisi, who has stayed so far out of the public eye that a Google search turned up little beyond Wednesday’s announcement. The Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a statement last year saying he had been promoted to the rank of “general staff” upon the recommendation of Prince Bandar. He may be well known in the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies, but his public profile is the polar opposite of Bandar’s. It will likely be many months before it becomes possible to assess his performance or to know the degree to which, as a non-royal, he has genuine authority over intelligence operations.