Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, has disappeared. In the absence of any official news about his health or whereabouts, the rumour mill has been working overtime. As is often the case with Saudi affairs, the truth is elusive. Those who know won’t talk and those who don’t know talk a lot.
Last August the Iranian media reported that Bandar had been put under house arrest, allegedly for plotting a coup to try and ensure the Kingdom would continue under the rule of the Sudairi branch of the Al Saud family. But Iran isn’t the most reliable source: al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia’s news network, gibes Iran hourly over its ongoing political turmoil; Iran’s al-Alam and Press TV hit back at Saudi Arabia whenever they can.
Others say that Bandar is depressed or has been ordered by King Abdullah to keep a low profile because he meddled in Syrian affairs, trying to stir up the tribes against the Assad regime, without the king’s approval.
According to Saudi opposition sources, Bandar is now in Dhaban Prison, in north west Jeddah, a high security jail where terrorist suspects and political opposition figures are held. Bandar is said to be in a special wing where the other prisoners are four senior generals: one from the army, one from the royal guard, one from the national guard and one from internal security. Bandar’s lawyer in the US denies he is in prison and says he has been seen out and about recently, although he wouldn’t divulge when, where or even in which country.
The last official sighting of Bandar in public seems to have been on 10 December 2008, when he met the king in Jeddah. Since then he has missed a string of important events, and no one will say why. In September 2009, when his position as head of the Kingdom’s National Security Council was renewed for another four years, he didn’t appear in public to profess his allegiance to the king, as is customary. No official explanation was forthcoming. The same month, Bandar missed the Dallas Cowboys’ first home game against the New York Giants in their new stadium. Bandar has been a Cowboys fan since he flew as a fighter pilot instructor in Texas in the 1970s. He normally sits next to his friend Jerry Jones, the team’s owner. Then in October Bandar failed to show up as one of the official delegation accompanying King Abdullah on his landmark visit to Damascus, which ended the four-year estrangement between Saudi Arabia and Syria that began with the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005.
But the most significant event Bandar missed was in December 2009 when his ill father, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, returned to the Kingdom after months convalescing in Morocco. As usual, the event was shown live on TV and Prince Sultan received many members of the Saudi royal family. Some senior figures – such as Princes Talal, Muteb and Abdulrahman – weren’t there for known reasons. But Bandar’s absence hasn’t been accounted for.
The lack of any official explanation of Bandar’s whereabouts is especially puzzling since he is supposed to head an important government agency. When he returned from Washington in 2005 after his 22-year stint as ambassador, his appointment as secretary-general of the newly formed National Security Council was meant to signal a return to the family fold and a higher domestic profile. In the months before his disappearance he travelled frequently to Moscow, both to negotiate arms deals and to try to persuade the Kremlin to halt its military co-operation with Iran. There’s been speculation that his activity in Russia could be connected to his disappearance: some blogs claim that Bandar’s supposed abortive coup was exposed by Russian intelligence.
Without any hard evidence, only one thing in this murky story is clear: Prince Bandar’s time as a wheeler-dealer at the heart of Saudi foreign affairs is over. The influence he enjoyed in Washington stemmed ultimately from the personal authorisation he received from King Fahd. But tarnished by the al-Yamamah arms deal and overshadowed in the Saudi hierarchy because of his mother’s lowly social status, since his return to the Kingdom Bandar has been marginalised by other members of the ruling family, who built their fiefdoms while he was in the US. Wherever he is now, the glory days are past – unless another of his patrons becomes king.