Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s replacement last week as Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief has fueled speculation about a shift in the monarchy’s shaky relations with the United States and its position toward the Syrian conflict — not to mention about the prince’s political future.
Yet many political experts and pundits believe Bandar’s departure will barely affect Saudi foreign policies. And they say it’s possible the prince could return to the political scene stronger than ever.
“The last person to be relieved of his duties [in 2012] as head of Saudi intelligence — Prince Muqrin [bin Abdulaziz] — has become for all intents and purposes a king-in-waiting,” said Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington. “Any pronouncements about the ‘end’ of Prince Bandar may be premature.”
Last month, Muqrin was appointed deputy crown prince, making it probable he will someday become king.
According to the official Saudi Press Agency, a royal order announced Tuesday that Bandar, who had guided Saudi policy on the Syrian conflict, would step down from his post “upon his request.” His deputy, General Staff Yousif bin Ali al-Idreesi, was named his successor.
Bandar, who had been appointed intelligence chief in July 2012 and had pushing to help Syrian rebels depose President Bashar Assad, reportedly has spent time recently in the United States and Morocco for medical treatment. The news agency did not say, however, whether the 65-year-old had stepped down for health reasons.
The brief royal decree also did not clarify whether he would continue in his other position as head of the National Security Council or take up a new post.
“In a way, Prince Bandar is irreplaceable because of his high international profile,” said Saudi journalist Rasheed Abou-Alsamh. “Most Saudi leaders are quite low-key and do not like to appear much in the press and to be talked about.”
Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar and expert on Saudi political affairs, echoed similar sentiments, saying that “there is a fight for the throne now and the king’s camp is moving their pieces to [get] ahead, so they may move Bandar to another position.”
Some media reports suggest Bandar’s removal could bolster Saudi’s damaged relations with the United States. Tensions rose between the two countries last year after Bandar, a former ambassador to the U.S., reportedly warned of a “major shift” in ties between the countries following President Obama’s decision not to resort to military airstrikes against Syria.
“Bandar was especially close to the Bush family,” Abou-Alsamh said, noting that Obama, who visited Riyadh last month, “is a Democrat and has made a point of reversing the perceived U.S. aggressiveness in foreign policy that saw the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by President George W. Bush’s administration.”
But it’s not clear those issues played a role in Bandar’s departure, he said, adding: “The royal family dynamics are very opaque for outside viewers.”
The two countries have had differences over a number of issues, including the U.S. pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Saudi rival Iran.
For his part, Abou-Alsamh is convinced that the oil-rich kingdom and the United States had already been working on repairing their bilateral relations before Bandar’s removal.
“Saudis have been quietly reassuring the Americans that there will not be a major shift in the kingdom’s alliances,” he said. “The fact remains that the U.S. is the only superpower that can effectively and quickly defend Saudi Arabia and the other [Persian] Gulf countries from an outside threat.”
Robert Lacey, a noted British journalist, historian and author of the 2009 bestselling book “Inside the Kingdom,” said “Saudi relations with the U.S. are not as broke” as some reports have suggested.
Lacey believes Bandar was relieved of his post for “health not policy reasons … so I foresee no major change of Saudi policy” toward the Syrian conflict.
Al-Ahmed noted that Saudi foreign policy and relations are decided by King Abdullah and carried out by the intelligence agency and the Interior Ministry, suggesting little would change immediately.
“The policy toward Syria is not changing from supporting the rebels,” he said. “It may change in terms of whom Saudi [Arabia] supports. They may lean toward less extremist groups.”
Tarek, a reporter from Cairo, is a visiting journalist at The Times sponsored by the Daniel Pearl Foundation in partnership with the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships.