Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the dean of Washington's diplomatic corps and confidant of presidents both Republican and Democratic over the past 22 years, has resigned and will be replaced by the former head of Saudi Arabia's intelligence service.
Bandar, a former air force pilot who came to the job with limited diplomatic experience, ended up as a central player in Washington politics. Famed for his cigars and good-humored confidence that sometimes bordered on audacity, he brokered deals that heavily influenced U.S. policies and cemented American ties to the world's largest oil producer. A Saudi statement cited unspecified personal reasons for the move.
In a reflection of his influence, officials in the first Bush administration referred to him as "Top Gun." He had such direct access to presidents and Cabinet members that he could show up at their offices unscheduled and gain entry. He once arrived at the State Department with ten bags of McDonalds hamburgers for a 10 p.m. strategy session -- when top officials had no idea he was coming and were discussing an initiative that was still secret. The current Bush administration reviewed war plans with him before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
His departure comes at a sensitive time because of fears of instability in a country that has become a pillar of U.S. policy and a vital energy source. In yet another scare, the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh warned American residents yesterday that militants are planning new terrorist attacks but said it had no details on the target. Saudi security forces announced the discovery of bomb-making materials used in previous al Qaeda attacks. They were found in a hideout south of the capital.
Saudi Arabia also faces political challenges, with King Fahd incapacitated by a stroke and with many senior princes aging. Fahd was hospitalized recently amid signs that the royal family is preparing for a transition to Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler. Bandar's father, the defense minister, is the leading candidate to be crown prince, although he is recovering from stomach cancer, U.S. officials say.
The White House yesterday acknowledged Bandar's "distinguished service" during four presidencies. "In troubled times, U.S. Presidents past and present have relied upon Ambassador Bandar's advice. In good times, they have enjoyed his wit, charm, and humor," a statement said.
Prince Bandar will be replaced by Prince Turki al Faisal, son of the late King Faisal. He headed Saudi intelligence for 14 years and is the ambassador to Britain. He, too, has long-standing ties to Washington.
Bandar, who was the product of his father's liaison with a family slave, had a wily ability to blend Riyadh's wealth and Washington's power for a common end.
In 1993, the Clinton administration faced a problem concerning Iran, when Boeing was competing against France's Airbus for a lucrative deal, which Washington did not want to go through because of U.S. sanctions. But the West Coast aircraft industry was in a region important to the Democrats.
"Enter Bandar," recalled then-Assistant Secretary of State Martin S. Indyk. "We went to him and said we had a problem. He went to the king and the Saudis agreed to commit to an all-American replacement of its air fleet -- a $4 billion deal. That's how Bandar got access."
Bandar also served as a secret conduit for U.S. messages to top Arab officials, from then-Syrian President Hafez Assad to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said former assistant secretary of state Edward S. Walker. "He played a role constantly and repeatedly."
The prince was pugnacious on Saudi priorities, such as when he prodded Libya and the United States into a rapprochement neither wanted. During President Bill Clinton's 1998 visit to South Africa, then-President Nelson Mandela pulled the U.S. leader aside for a one-on-one in the next room -- where, unbeknownst to Clinton, Bandar was waiting to press the issue. National security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger was "furious that Bandar had outwitted him" by getting Mandela to help him, Indyk recalled.
Bandar pressured Libya into admitting culpability for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and paying the victims' families. A secret U.S.-Libyan dialogue took place in Bandar's residences in Europe, U.S. officials said.
But the ambassador was not above chiding the United States to ensure commitment. Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft said he still remembers Bandar's comment after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait when Washington decided to send troops to the Saudi kingdom.
"His reaction was: 'Why would we want to be defended by you?' " Scowcroft recalled. Bandar mentioned the withdrawal of U.S. Marines from Beirut after a 1983 bombing there killed 241. "What he wanted was to be able to tell the king the U.S. was serious and would not pull out if it got tough." In the end, Bandar became "indispensable" to the military planning, Scowcroft said.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bandar has been less visible in Washington. "He's the only ambassador from any country that had a genuine personal friendship -- going off to smoke cigars and drink un-Islamic beverages -- with successive presidents," said former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas W. Freeman. "He reflected tremendous energy, imagination, drive and charisma, which were unfortunately not utilized in the last years of his career."