THE BLOG

Bandar's Busted Flush

The final nail in Prince Bandar bin Sultan's coffin did not come when the former Saudi intelligence chief lost control of the Syria file to his political rival the interior minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. It was when Bin Nayef went to King Abdullah and obtained from him a written mandate to keep the file. Such is the mutual lack trust at the highest reaches of the Saudi royal family.

Bandar was sacked as intelligence chief on Tuesday, but his fall from grace had been a long time coming. For decades, Bandar's worth to the King lay in his relationship with Washington, both as an insider to successive occupants of the White House and in Congress. That ended when Barack Obama balked at bombing Bashar al Assad after the chemical attack outside Damascus. Bandar had been pressing Washington to attack, and had assured his King that the US would attack.

Bandar had, in fact, been burning this particular candle at both ends. He had infuriated the US when it found out that military and financial aid given by Saudi intelligence had ended up in the hands of Syrian fighters who gave their allegiance to al Qaida. For America this was a double blow -- the Saudi money was not toppling Assad, but it was advancing the fortunes of al Nusra front and ISIS.

Syria was not the only stain on Bandar's record. None of his schemes appeared to be working. He made a pact with Saudi's oldest enemies in Yemen, the Houthis, but Saudis still lost influence in what it always considered to be its back yard.

While senior members of the Saudi royal family are united about the threat they perceive from the Muslim Brotherhood, there are pragmatic voices prepared to challenge the neo-conservative hawkishness of the former intelligence chief. Openly threatening Qatar with a land and sea blockade, over the Gulf state's foreign policy now turns out to have been an unwise move.

Half the Gulf Cooperation Council have parted company with Riyadh as a result. Oman, Kuwait as well as Qatar are outside its reach. And Iran has opportunistically expanded into the space created by the kingdom's receding influence . Not for nothing had the kingdom been traditionally cautious in its foreign policy. That caution had been thrown to winds under the Bandar.

Saudi Arabia has not only lost all meaningful contact with Iran, but also Turkey where the AKP prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lives to fight another day having received a boost in the polls. It is not sensible for the Saudis to have alienated both Turkey and Iran, and there are calmer heads in Riyadh who now recognize this. It is inherently dangerous for the Saudis to have regional rivals in Turkey who are prepared to champion the Sunni cause.

This is why one of the first calls of congratulation Erdogan received after the local elections earlier this month was from Prince Muqrin, recently named the second in line to the throne.

Egypt is another minus for Bandar. Again, the cause of the internal criticism within the Saudi royal household is not some profound divergence over the need to support the military coup. It is over the continuing cost of doing so. Egypt is becoming a black hole for Saudi and Emirati money, and the country is showing few signs of stabilizing. Bandar's disappearance is unlikely therefore to spark an immediate change in Saudi foreign policy. But it does mean that one of its leading motors has now been turned off.

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