After 22 years as the Saudi ambassador to America, Prince Bandar is headed home. The Prince was bad for the U.S., using his extraordinary amiability and infinite supply of ready cash to exploit moral weaknesses in Washington higher-ups. That’s why I’d been calling for him to be sent home for several years. (I would, however, love to read his memoirs someday. I suspect, though, that many important people in our nation’s capital would not look forward to the publication of Bandar’s autobiography.)
On the other hand, he was a tremendously talented ambassador, and his country was terribly lucky to have him. On the human level, his story is admirable: he is the son of a slave-girl (he’s about as black-looking as Colin Powell).
A former State Dept. official emails:
The Saudis have outlawed slavery [although not until 1962, during the American civil rights era], but it still exists not only for black Africans, but also for Filipino housekeepers who are effectively abducted for long periods after arriving in Saudi with a work permit. As Christians, the Filipinos have no civil rights whatsoever.
He reminisces about his contacts with Bandar:
One trip in the mid-1970s, I was told I would do well to meet a young Prince Bandar bin Sultan, son of the Defense Minister and the fighter pilot/squadron leader of the Saudi Air Force’s crack attack wing. We met for several hours in his office and he told me that the Saudi military considered Iraq the biggest military threat in that bad neighborhood [the US Embassy was under the impression that the Shah of Iran was more dangerous than Saddam Hussein, so this was a surprise to me].
The very dark and athletic Bandar invited me to dinner at his home that evening, a rare event for a foreign diplomat who usually only saw Saudi royal family types from afar. That evening, over liquorless orange juice, Bandar and I spent hours discussing Saudi domestic policy and US-Saudi diplomatic relations. He told me the fascinating story of how he rose from the lowly lineage of a Sudanese slave mother and Minister of Defense father Prince Sultan to a position of some eminence—-his shiftless full-blooded royal brothers were all playboys and had sinecure government positions. He explained that since Bandar had been shunned by his half-brothers as a child, he had hung around the alpha-male type adults in the household and overheard their political discussions until he had figured out a lot of the Saudi backstairs political scene through his native street smarts and curious mind.
Sent to military school, he was the only senior prince who flew advanced jet fighters ‘”The plane does not know I am a prince.”
Although in a moment of exuberance that night Bandar told me that he wanted to be king, he actually did better. His longtime service as Saudi Ambassador in DC and his affable intelligence gave him access to several presidents of the USA [Reagan, the two Bushes & Clinton] which he used to become actual friends with all of them except Reagan. As the son of a slave mother, Bandar could never come into the line of succession to become king, but his marriage to the daughter of former King Faisal assured him of a senior position in the Royal Family.
Perhaps an anecdote related to me by XXX, sheds light on just how important Bandar became over the twenty-plus years he was Saudi Ambassador in DC. The story is that in 1990, after Saddam invaded Kuwait in the summer, there was a major problem in convincing the Saudis that the US military should be allowed to be positioned in the Islamic Holy Land [subsequent events in the mid-90s bore out the controversial implications of stationing ’infidels’ in Saudi].
Prez George HW Bush asked Bandar, who was totally committed to sending a US force to Saudi, how to get King Fahd, buffeted by senior royal princes distrustful of the US and also skeptical that the US would even honor Carter and Reagan’s promises to defend Saudi against an attack from anywhere, to agree to invite the Americans. Bandar asked GHWB to send Defense Secretary Dick Cheney [who brought along Colin Powell] with him to Riyadh for a meeting with the King. Bandar asked Cheney to bring along reconnaissance photos of jets parked on a military airfield—it didn’t matter from where.
Bandar told Cheney and Powell that they should let him do the talking. XXX told me that Bandar had Cheney show the King the photos and that Bandar said that the airfield was in North Yemen and that the jets were Iraqi planes sent by Saddam to encircle Saudi Arabia.
Bear in mind that the Saudis had seized a huge chunk of Yemen early in the 20th century and that about one Saudi out of four was of Yemeni heritage. North Yemen had defeated Egypt in a war in the ‘60s and the Yemenis were renowned as the fiercest fighters in the Arab world. Yemen also had made no secret that it wanted the territory back that the Saudis had ripped off fifty-some years before.
When Fahd was shown the photo and told that the Iraqi planes were in Yemen, his immediate reaction was to invite the American military into Saudi Arabia.
Of course, Saddam was quickly defeated by Schwartzkopf’s brilliant plan, but the American military remained long after the Gulf War was successfully concluded. Osama bin Ladin and the Saudi mujahideen who had fought in Afghanistan regarded US presence in the Islamic Holy Land as an abomination worse than the Crusaders’ long stay in the Levant. Of the fifteen Saudis in the suicide attacks of 9/11, eleven were of Yemeni heritage, as of course is Osama bin Ladin. And of course, Prince Bandar’s success in convincing King Fahd to allow US troops into Saudi Arabia in the Cheney meeting that day had unintended consequences which will last for a long time.
Bandar’s replacement as ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki Faisal was fired two days before 9/11 and doubts remain as to his knowledge of what was going to happen and when it was going to happen. The best explanation for the extremely rare occurrence of a senior royal official being fired is that Prince Turki had been paying off major terrorist organizations to prevent an attack on the Saudis. It turned out that one or more of the huge payoffs, reportedly amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, were complete scams. Another version is that the terrorists took the money and then committed hits against the Saudis anyway. No one has successfully demonstrated that Prince Turki had any advance knowledge of 9/11.