SHAFAQNA (Shia News Association)The surprise appointment of the hawkish former Saudi ambassador to Washington as the kingdom’s intelligence chief suggests plans for a more aggressive foreign policy in the region, analysts said.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, 63, kept a low profile in Saudi Arabia since being recalled from the US in 2005, where he had served as ambassador for 22 years. Renowned for his backchannel operations and shuttle diplomacy, this appointment last Thursday suggests Saudi Arabia seeks a more assertive role in shaping the outcomes of Arab revolts and containing Iran.
“He is an old hand on the Iran-Syria file,” said Hussein Shobokshi, a Jeddah-based columnist. “When he was ambassador to the US, he handled special assignments dealing with different parties in Lebanon and defusing crises.”
Saudi Arabia’s response to various Arab uprisings has ranged from passive observation to active intervention, either to support certain regimes, as in Bahrain, to hastening transitions, as in Yemen. The kingdom is a key economic and security ally to the west, but the fall of allies in Egypt and Tunisia raised serious concerns among senior royals, who saw a need to take matters into their own hands given the unpredictable conduct of western countries since 2011. In Syria, the kingdom is believed to have acted along with Qatar in arming rebels against the Assad regime.
“There is an immense scope for an aggressive foreign policy now,” said one western observer. “The Saudis have been remarkably upfront and aggressive about Syria. They haven’t been this open about supporting and arming an opposition force since Afghanistan.”
Prince Bandar is also known for harbouring particular hostility towards Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president , whose file has been personally handled by King Abdullah’s own son, Prince Abdulaziz, the deputy foreign minister.
He also played roles in resolving various thorny matters, including negotiating the compromise in the Lockerbie bombing and initiating relations with Russia and China.
“Bandar definitely has a combination of the political and military experience,” said Abdulaziz Sager, head of Gulf Research Centre, a think-tank. “There is a desire [in the kingdom] for better control over matters in Syria, particularly to ensure that heavy weapons like anti-tank rockets don’t fall into the wrong hands.”
Upon his return from the US, Prince Bandar established the Saudi National Security Council, but maintained unusually limited public activities, particularly after a prolonged recovery from medical treatments. Some observers suggested he might have fallen out of favour with King Abdullah.
The National Security Council, which he will continue to lead, convened for the first time last year on March 11 when an unknown Saudi opposition group called for a Day of Rage in the kingdom. Council members include the king, the crown prince, and the interior and foreign ministers. Its mission includes co-ordinating exchanges among the various security bodies within Saudi Arabia to respond to potential threats and facilitating international co-operation with other countries.
The appointment to the intelligence post was announced a day after a blast in Syria killed several top Syrian security officials. “It is a crucial moment for the Saudis and for Sunnis who want to grab what they can and push Iran out,” said one well-informed western analyst.
Observers say that with Prince Bandar’s experience and close ties with the Americans may help to reinvigorate intelligence services.
He enjoyed enormous power and influence in Washington circles as well as inside the sprawling royal family, particularly during the reign of King Fahd. He was regarded as a close ally of both Bush presidencies and as particularly close to Republican leaders, and as having maintained an extremely active party lifestyle during his stint in Washington. However, he is also respected for having worked his way up and proving himself in the sprawling royal family.
Source : FT