LONDON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s “peasant prince” with the twinkling eye, hawkish views and fondness for the Dallas Cowboys football team is back, now heading the kingdom’s intelligence agency.
On Thursday night Prince Bandar bin Sultan was appointed Saudi Arabia’s new spy chief at a moment when the world’s top oil exporter is engaged in a bitter rivalry with Shi‘ite Muslim power Iran played out in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.
The sociable Bandar, 63, who vanished from public view when he was recalled from Washington by King Abdullah in 2005 after notching up 22 years as the kingdom’s ambassador there, will immediately be thrust into a game-changing Middle East crisis.
“He’s just the right person for the right time in Saudi. They have a more hawkish foreign policy and he’s the leading hawk of the House of Saud,” said David Ottaway, Bandar’s biographer and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
The United States’ closest Arab ally is a firm supporter of the Syrian rebels now battling in Damascus to oust President Bashar al-Assad and is mending fences with Washington after a disagreement over last year’s Arab uprisings.
“Bandar is quite aggressive, not at all like a typical cautious Saudi diplomat. If the aim is to bring Bashar down quick and fast, he will have a free hand to do what he thinks necessary. He likes to receive an order and implement it as he sees fit,” said Jamal Khashoggi, an influential Saudi commentator.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has described arming the rebels as “a very good idea”. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are believed to be funding and sending weapons to the Syrian insurgents, Arab officials say.
As Syria’s crisis enters a potentially decisive stage in the aftermath of Thursday’s assassination of top security chiefs in a bomb blast, Riyadh’s princely rulers are concerned about blowback from Assad’s allies in Iran.
With Syria in flames, Iraq still weak and Egypt navigating an uncertain transition towards democracy, Saudi Arabia now stands alone as the Arab world’s most stable major nation.
Ottaway said Bandar had previously negotiated with both Syria and Iran, as well as with Russia, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council that has vetoed resolutions against the Assad government written by Riyadh.
“He wants to see Saudi Arabia flex its muscles, particularly if the Americans are there with him,” he added.
Bandar’s close ties to American politicians and officials, including a personal friendship with both presidents Bush, has also fuelled speculation that his appointment is aimed at bolstering Saudi Arabia’s key alliance at a turbulent time.
“Bandar is the ultimate shuttle diplomat. I think he is in a position to play a role perhaps beyond his portfolio in gathering coalitions and persuading reluctant partners and solidifying those who are of a like mind,” said Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Riyadh from 2001-03.
Bandar’s plump form and goatee-beard were a common sight in the White House of successive administrations, both at the alliance’s apotheosis during the 1990-91 Gulf War, and its nadir following al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attack on the United States, in which 15 of the 19 aircraft hijackers were Saudi citizens.
Yet despite his ostensibly high birth as a son of Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz, a ruling family powerbroker and defence minister for five decades, Prince Bandar’s rise to prominence was never assured.
Unlike his many half brothers, Bandar’s mother was a lowly commoner and he reportedly grew up outside his father’s palace in a humble Riyadh neighbourhood. It was due to this paradoxical history that he declared himself “the peasant prince”.
Instead of working royal connections to secure the plum post of Washington ambassador, he joined the air force, eventually heading its aerial acrobatics team, and fell in love with the United States during a training mission.
“He grew up feeling he had to prove himself. Probably the reason he became a pilot was because it didn’t matter if you were a prince or a peasant to how good a pilot you were,” said Ottaway.
In repeated visits he built a close rapport with American officials, catching the eye of his uncle, King Fahd, who appointed the bon vivant ambassador in 1983.
“Flamboyant, dramatic, personable, smart, canny and probably manipulative,” was the judgment of General Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to the first President George Bush.
At times this flamboyance caused difficulties - he was sometimes seen to make policy on the hoof independent of Riyadh, causing friction with other officials.
“But he’s a practical man. I‘m sure for a position such as this he will not carry out a policy shift without checking with the king first,” said Khashoggi.
That independent streak also helped stirred rumours after he was recalled to Riyadh by King Abdullah in 2005 that he was out of favour. In fact, said Ottaway, Bandar’s effective disappearance from public life was simply a question of health. “He was in hospitals and spa treatments a lot,” he said.
Editing by Mark Heinrich