Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, grandson to one king, nephew to four others, would like Americans to remember something. It was not so long ago that he met privately with President Bush, their conversation deciding the course of the war in the Middle East. That he had a direct line to Dick Cheney. That Colin Powell was in his back pocket. That American newspapers chronicled his machinations in breathless, Bandar-kissing articles, the inside dope leaked by the ambassador himself. That he was hailed as the Talleyrand of the desert, the essential figure in the United States’ most critical alliance in the world’s most important region.
But that President Bush is retired. The Gulf War is over. Cheney and Powell aren’t waiting for his calls. And it’s hard to decide which is disintegrating faster, Saudi Arabia’s reputation in Washington or Bandar’s.
For the first time in decades, U.S.-Saudi relations have turned poisonous in public. In this week’s New Yorker, Seymour Hersh portrays Bandar as out of favor with Saudi Arabia’s ruler Crown Prince Abdullah and accuses the ambassador of corruption, in particular helping himself to megacommissions on arms deals. William Safire is hammering Bandar on the New York Times’ op-ed page. Relying on leaks from American officials, the Times and Los Angeles Times have scalded Saudi Arabia in recent articles. Saudi Arabia, they say, is refusing to freeze assets connected to Osama Bin Laden, blocking investigation of Saudi hijackers, and denying the United States use of military bases for staging strikes against Afghanistan. On Sunday, the New York Times piled on with a brutal editorial lambasting the Saudis for funding Islamic extremists and tacitly condoning terrorism.
Why are Bandar and his country tumbling? Why has Washington finally turned on the necessary man?
Bandar, who cultivates a reputation as the Saudi Gatsby, is as close to self-made as a zillionaire prince can be. Born in 1949, Bandar was the illegitimate child of Prince Sultan and a servant. Bandar’s father—who’s been the kingdom’s defense minister since the early ‘60s—scarcely acknowledged the boy, but his grandmother, the widow of King Abdulaziz, recognized his spark and protected him. Bandar was charming, smart, desperate for acceptance, and greedy for power. As a young man he won over his uncle King Fahd with his salesman’s bonhomie.
After studying in the United Kingdom and United States and flying fighter jets for the Saudi air force, Bandar was dispatched by Fahd to conquer Washington. He helped President Carter persuade Congress to sell F-15 jets to Saudi Arabia. When Carter needed Fahd to push down oil prices, he sent the request through Bandar. Bandar entranced President Reagan, too, teaming up with him in 1981 to convince Congress that Saudi Arabia should buy American AWACS planes. In 1983, Bandar, still a youngster, was named ambassador. He quickly emerged as D.C.’s prince of intrigue, the eager middleman between Washington and the world. He negotiated secretly to get the PLO out of Beirut during Israel’s Lebanon invasion. Bandar assisted the Reagan administration on the sly by sending $2 million a month to the Nicaraguan Contras as part of the Iran-Contra scheme. He arranged the U.S.-Saudi plan to supply arms to the Afghan mujahideen fighters, then brokered the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. During the Gulf War, Bandar became a shadow Bush Cabinet member, negotiating the deal that sent hundreds of thousands of American troops to Saudi Arabia.
Bandar exercised this awesome power for two reasons. First, he held the absolute trust of King Fahd. “He had extraordinary influence over the king and over President Bush. He convinced the Americans he could get Fahd to do anything, and the Saudis that he could get Bush to do anything,” says a former American diplomat in Saudi Arabia. Fahd’s trust made Bandar the single Saudi voice in Washington. From his mouth to the king’s ear.
Second, he won over Americans with his irrepressible zing. He smokes cigars! He roots for the Dallas Cowboys! He speaks English like an American! (How many diplomats can use the phrase “Monday-morning quarterbacking” correctly?) He hunted with President Carter, fished with President Bush, and jawed with President Reagan. He hosted lavish dinners at his Virginia estate for D.C. players, convincing them that Saudi Arabia was our new best friend, filled with U.S. sympathizers, devoid of radicalism, and utterly reliable. He buttered up journalists, greasing them with insider dope and precious visas to the kingdom. The D.C. press reciprocated with gee-whiz profiles about the incredible suavity of the “dean” of the Washington diplomatic corps. He contributed titanic sums to institutions connected to powerful Americans—$20 million to the University of Arkansas, a month before Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. Bandar—the Islamic representative of the most Islamic nation on earth—even mailed Christmas cards to his American buddies.
Bandar is losing it in post-9/11 D.C. because he has lost it in Riyadh. A 1995 stroke incapacitated King Fahd, and his half-brother Abdullah, the heir-apparent, is ruling in his stead. Saudi royal culture is built on personal relationships, and the one between Abdullah and Bandar is reportedly tense. Abdullah is pious, nationalistic, skeptical of the West, and passionate about the Palestinian cause—all things the intensely pragmatic, worldly Bandar is not. Abdullah, unlike Fahd, is famously intolerant of corruption within the royal family. Bandar, as Hersh’s article notes, is hardly pure as the driven snow.
Before Sept. 11, this didn’t much matter, but now that Bin Laden and the anti-terror war have focused attention on Saudi Arabia, the dissonance between Bandar and Riyadh is obvious. Bandar, a PR agent, has always sold a vision of Saudi Arabia that was, to put it politely, stylized—glossing over its burgeoning Islamism and anti-Americanism. “Bandar has done a masterful job in the past 25 years of painting this very quaint picture of robed Arabs going about their business and walking hand in hand with Americans, when in fact a lot of alarming things were percolating under the surface,” says Paul Michael Wihbey, fellow at the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies.
This modest whitewash was tolerable when he worked for a pro-Western king. But now he is a Potemkin, pushing a fraudulent vision of his homeland. On Frontline and elsewhere, Bandar has been claiming that Saudi Arabia is cooperating entirely with the U.S. investigation, that there is no Saudi support for Bin Laden and no Saudi fund-raising on his behalf, and that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not at issue in the terrorism war. He has been telling us what he thinks we want to hear.
But Bandar’s vision of Saudi Arabia has little to do with what Abdullah and his supporters actually seem to want. Saudi Arabia isn’t really cooperating with the Sept. 11 investigation. Bandar has implied Saudi sympathy for American military action, but the interior minister, an ally of Abdullah’s, this week deplored American strikes against Afghanistan. Bandar downplays the Palestinian conflict’s connection to the anti-terrorism campaign, but Abdullah and Co. insist Israel must be muzzled. Bandar eagerly proffers Saudi camaraderie, but all signs from Riyadh suggest the Saudis don’t want American friendship right now. Militant Wahabbi Islam is growing in Saudi Arabia, and there is significant support—both popular and financial—for Bin Laden. Bandar pretends this doesn’t exist. Abdullah and his allies know it does and share some of its sympathies. They have no desire to cooperate cheerfully with the United States now.
The American media and American policy-makers have finally realized that Bandar no longer speaks for his country, and that his country, unfortunately, is not the kind of place he says it is. Bandar wants it to be like the good old days, when he and President Bush could settle this over dinner and a stogie. But post-9/11, Bandar’s charm, pragmatism, and optimism are not merely useless but destructive. He is peddling fragrant lies at a time America needs dirty truths.