Saudi Arabian ambassador resigns
July 20, 2005
WASHINGTON – Bandar bin Sultan, a part-time Aspen resident who in 22 years as the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States operated as an insider’s insider and wielded enormous influence in Washington over successive administrations, is resigning for “private reasons,” Saudi Arabia announced Wednesday.Bandar, 56, the son of the Saudi defense minister, is to be replaced by another royal family member, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the brother of the Saudi Foreign minister and a former Saudi intelligence chief who in that position had dealings with the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan in the period before Sept. 11, 2001.According to current and former American diplomats, Turki tried in the 1990s to persuade the Taliban to return Osama bin Laden to Saudi Arabia to stand trial for plotting against the Saudi government. The prince currently serves as ambassador in London.”Yes, he knew members of al-Qaida,” said an American official. “Yes, he talked to the Taliban. At times he delivered messages to us and from us regarding Osama bin Laden and others. Yes, he had links that in this day and age would be considered problematic, but at the time we used those links.” This official said that Turki seemed to have “gotten out of that business” since 2001 and that “he understands that times have changed.”Saudi officials declined to specify the personal reasons for Bandar’s decision to retire, but people close to the embassy noted that he had spent little time in Washington in recent years and had suffered from exhaustion and health problems. His absence also left the embassy leaderless at a tumultuous time in Saudi-American relations, a source of rising concern in Riyadh.
Locally, Bandar has been a regular donor to charitable causes and such events as Aspen’s annual Winterskol celebration. He owns a well-secured mansion in Starwood, which heightened the resort’s security consciousness in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.Bandar’s last major public appearance in the United States was in April, when he was a key figure in Crown Prince Abdullah’s visit to Crawford, Texas, with President Bush, with whom he had previously discussed plans for the Iraq war in its early phases, according to Robert W. Jordan, a former ambassador to the kingdom.At the White House, Scott McClellan, the spokesman, said of Bandar that presidents “past and present” had “enjoyed his wit, charm and humor” as well as his advice. “The president bids Ambassador Bandar and his family a fond farewell and wishes them all the best on their return to the kingdom,” he added.Like Bandar, Turki was educated in the United States, at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and Georgetown University, but is said to be a more cautious, ascetic and intellectual figure unlikely to cut the same swath that his predecessor did, especially in establishing intimate ties with so many powerful Americans.Bandar courted friends for Saudi Arabia at his air-conditioned tent in the Saudi desert, Aspen, London, the south of France and in what former Ambassador Jordan said was “a beach house to end all beach houses” in Jiddah. But it was his closeness to the Bush family that made him a pivotal player in recent years.
“I think his role was indispensable,” Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to the first President Bush, said in an interview, referring to planning for the first war with Iraq in 1991. “He has an easy air and way about him, and presidents just like to have him in and talk to him.”Scowcroft said part of Bandar’s clout was his closeness to his uncle, King Fahd, who suffered a stroke in 1995. Friends of the ambassador say he never established the same closeness with Crown Prince Abdullah, who has been ruling the kingdom as regent for the last decade.Another former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas W. Freeman, said Bandar was “one of the greatest, if not the greatest diplomatic figures of the last quarter century” who cultivated close ties not only with the Bushes but also with Presidents Reagan and Carter and with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain and Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia.Among his accomplishments, Freeman said, was his crucial role in persuading Moammar Gadhafi of Libya to take responsibility in recent years for the downing of a jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, a move that paved the way for American diplomacy that persuaded Libya to renounce its nuclear arms program last year.”He is charismatic, charming, ingenious and relentless, with a great sense of humor and a great understanding of Americans from his time in the Air Force,” said Freeman, referring to his time as a fighter pilot training with Americans in the Royal Saudi Air Force.
Freeman said that Bandar had also been “grotesquely underutilized” in recent years because of his uneasy relationship with Abdullah and had “been trying to get out of Washington for at least a decade” but was unable to get leaders in Riyadh focused on picking a successor.An American official, asking not to be identified because he did not want to speculate about Saudi politics, said Bandar may also be trying to jockey for an important national security position in Riyadh.In recent years, amid mounting charges of Saudi complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks and charges that the Saudis had not been doing enough to combat terrorism, the absence of a visible ambassador in Washington has hurt the Saudi image in the United States, the official said, and stirred concerns in Riyadh that it was “not well served” in Washington.The vacuum was filled in part by Adel al-Jubeir, an adviser to Abdullah and the Saudi Foreign Ministry who has appeared on television talk shows and conferred with American officials and politicians in Congress but is not a member of the royal family and thus was not a likely candidate to replace Bandar.Current and former American officials said they expected Turki to become a prominent fixture in Washington and in American public forums even though he is more reticent than Bandar. His contacts in the 1990s with the Taliban and al-Qaida are not likely to do him much harm, several said.