Prince Bandar bin Sultan

Larger-than-life diplomacy

Prince Bandar bin Sultan was an envoy like no other

EVEN in a region as turbulent as the Middle East, few men have been as influential, as colourful or as flawed as Prince Bandar bin Sultan. As the Saudi king’s personal envoy and then for more than 20 years his nation’s ambassador to Washington, DC, the prince dealt with—by David Ottaway’s estimation—“five US presidents, ten secretaries of state, 11 national security advisers, 16 sessions of Congress, an obstreperous American media, and hundreds of greedy politicians”. No Arab ambassador—perhaps no ambassador—has come close to matching Prince Bandar’s influence in the American capital. At the height of his powers he was indispensable to both sides: in Mr Ottaway’s words, “at once the king’s exclusive messenger and the White House’s errand boy”.

An authorised life by William Simpson, “The Prince”, which came out in 2006, reflected Bandar’s considerable talent for self-promotion. But in his new biographer he has met his match. During Mr Ottaway’s 35 years at the Washington Post, the reporter observed the Saudi diplomat closely and interviewed him often. When it came to royal leaks, the Post was Prince Bandar’s paper of choice. No outsider can fully penetrate the Saudi kingdom’s opaque world of court intrigue and Islamic zealotry, but Mr Ottaway does a creditable job. The portrait of Bandar that emerges is of a fighter pilot, drawn reluctantly into diplomacy, who became one of the master manipulators of that craft.

Some of his feats are well known. In the Reagan years, he secured the purchase of AWACS surveillance aircraft in the teeth of fierce Israeli and congressional opposition. He secretly supplied cash to fight cold-war causes: $32m to the Nicaraguan contras, Mr Ottaway says, and $10m to bolster anti-communist politicians in Italy. When America turned down one particular arms request, Prince Bandar, undeterred, bought missiles from China, hoodwinking the CIA and infuriating the State Department.

Successive American administrations were both seduced and maddened by him. He was energetic, charming, profane. With his love of baseball, expensive living and fat cigars he was the all-American Arab. But if officials came to depend on him, they also learnt that he could be devious, ruthless and manipulative. Was he working for the House of Saud, America or himself? It was not always easy to know. In one incident, officials in the Carter administration discovered the prince had deliberately mistranslated an important letter from the then Saudi ruler, King Fahd, to President Sadat of Egypt, to make it sound more conciliatory. (This was at a time when Sadat was being vilified in the Arab world for signing the Camp David peace accords with Israel.) Freelancing seemed to come naturally to the prince.

There were good years and bad. The prince worked best with Republican administrations. In the Reagan years, a golden age for the Saudi-American bond, the two countries were staunch allies against communism. In the first Bush presidency the common enemy was Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was traumatic for Saudi Arabia: King Fahd’s decision to invite 500,000 American troops into the kingdom triggered a wave of Islamist dissent. But Prince Bandar worked through it alongside President Bush’s senior team: James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Dick Cheney and General Colin Powell. As Mr Ottaway records, the prince became virtually part of the administration, able to enter the White House unannounced and enjoying the rare privilege of a State Department security detail. Prince Bandar later recalled that he ate more pizza at late-night meetings during the autumn and winter of 1990-91 than in his entire life before or since.

Although Mr Ottaway is reluctant to write the prince’s political obituary, this is a story with clear elements of decline and fall. Bandar’s star began to fade when Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1993. Even the election eight years later of the younger George Bush, a family friend, failed to remedy matters. Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler, who was appalled at the administration’s apparent indifference to Palestinian suffering in the second intifada, told Bandar to deliver a tough message threatening to freeze relations. He did so with a heavy heart, but within weeks there was worse to come. Secluded in front of his customary bank of televisions, on a rare day off in his Virginia mansion, the prince watched the World Trade Centre being attacked. Much of his life’s work (and Saudi-American relations) went up in smoke when it emerged that most of the terrorists who struck the Twin Towers came from Saudi Arabia.

In a long, rambling and self-justificatory late-night interview with Mr Ottaway soon after, Prince Bandar unburdened himself, trying vainly to defend the kingdom against a new army of detractors. He stayed on in Washington, but had clearly had enough. In 2005 he finally left to become national security adviser to Abdullah, who had recently become king. He made plans for a grand leaving party, and then cancelled it.

Mr Ottaway’s book is not, strictly speaking, a biography. It says little about Bandar’s early years and virtually nothing about his family. Two books due out in the next few weeks, Patrick Tyler’s “A World of Trouble” and “Innocent Abroad” by Martin Indyk, will add detail to the wider canvas on which Prince Bandar worked. But as a study of the larger-than-life figure who served as broker of the strange, complex and conflicted marriage between America and Arabia, Mr Ottaway’s work is surely definitive.

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