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Feature Article
2020-10-11

Disruption Top to Bottom: The Reappearance of Bandar bin Sultan

In what many are calling a "writ of divorce", the Saudi royals have blasted the Palestinian status quo and let it be known that henceforth, foreign policy will not be driven by traditional considerations. Does this represent a victory for the reformist views of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, or is it a strategic shift based on a pivot away from American leadership in the region?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

In a three-part series on government-controlled al-Arabiya television, Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime former Saudi ambassador to the United States and former secretary general of the Saudi National Security Council, denounced the Palestinian leadership and its history of folly and blunder in scathing terms. "The Palestinian cause is a just cause but its advocates are failures," he said. Bandar, who as an 'elder statesman' speaks with the authority few can match, took pains to reaffirm the Saudi commitment to the Palestinian cause itself ("a single drop of Palestinian blood is more precious than the earth's treasures"), but was unsparing in his fiery denunciation of decades of missed opportunities and relentless incompetence. 'Enough', he seemed to say - each successive proposal and painstakingly negotiated peace plan had been short-circuited by warring factions and short-sighted political miscalculation, the proverbial defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. He spoke from experience, having been a first-hand witness to events ranging from the 1978 Camp David agreement to the crisis talks of 2007, when King Abdallah brokered an end to the deadly Fatah-Hamas violence, an opportunity which was squandered within days, he laments. Bandar was blunt - "we are at a stage in which, rather than being concerned with how to face the Israeli challenges in order to serve the Palestinian cause, we have to pay attention to our national security and interests."

Notably, Bandar spoke in Arabic, so his words would reach a wide regional audience and leave no misunderstanding. This was followed by extensive coverage in state media, to make it abundantly clear that this was no rogue interview or off-guard moment; Bandar's words undoubtedly had the approval of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS). Further, they come in the wake of similar sentiments expressed by Turki al-Faysal, another family elder who often speaks as an unofficial government spokesman, though he has done less of that lately as his influence has waned. Still, to have two such senior members of the royals come out to publicly distance the Kingdom from the Palestinian leadership, which is more used to being feted at the royal palace, is nothing short of seismic. The Saudis have been the largest benefactors and the most vocal supporters of that people's struggle, as well as (traditionally) the arch-foe of Israel (many of King Faysal's thoughts on the matter would likely be considered anti-Semitic today). King Salman, too, being more conservative in his views than the generation of his son the crown prince, has been a staunch ally of Palestine. In the past, whenever a prince might have gently suggested a more conciliatory approach with Israel, the king could be counted on to deliver a solemn message reaffirming the Kingdom's unwavering commitment, as if to drive home that his views were official policy, and those princes speaking out of line would be dealt with in due course. In fact, this has happened as recently as the spring of this year - after MbS hinted at a rapprochement with their long-time rival, Salman snuffed out any speculation. The Foreign Minister, Faysal bin Farhan, has also come to his aid, ruling out a normalization of ties with Israel until a comprehensive peace deal was agreed to by the Palestinians. More and more, however, the king's statements of "support" seem like empty gestures, expected, yet recited by rote. The fact that Turki al-Faysal has said much the same thing as MbS only recently, though in less flamboyant terms, lends weight to the view that Saudi is indeed softening its hardline views.

For a time, Bandar had disappeared from view almost completely, sparking much speculation. Was he out of favor with the 'establishment'? Was his health failing, assassinated? Or was he simply taking a much deserved break from a lifetime of service?

Related articles: Ambition Meets Reality: The Crown Prince's Dilemma
An Unpredictable Prince: Realpolitik Or Royal Politics?
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Commentary
Ambition Meets Reality: The Crown Prince's Dilemma

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, now effectively in charge of policy, has gambled that the support of the younger generation and a pragmatic approach to foreign and domestic affairs will win out over the traditional pillars of the Saudi state in his quest for major reform. His over-reliance on an American ally may jeopardize his ambitions, however, if a change in Washington comes to pass.

An Unpredictable Prince: Realpolitik Or Royal Politics?

The juxtaposition of two events over the past month throws into focus the challenges faced by Saudi Arabia as the country nears the end of an era. First, the aging king was hospitalised; then news broke that his son and heir was alleged to have sent a hit squad to Canada in pursuit of a settling of scores. The timing of the announcements highlights the fragility of the current structure, wherein the monarch drifts towards the periphery, and policy depends on the whims and hidden motives of the crown prince.

Royal Family Domestic Politics in the Modern Era: Co-optation, Rebellion and Dissent (Part II)

With the end of the rebellion against what was to become the ruling branch of the family, power became more concentrated then ever in the hands of a small group of senior royals. The extended period from the 1980's until the present era, when a succession of aging kings took their place on the throne, denying the next generation the opportunity to establish itself, has accelerated this process. Now, as a new crown prince waits his turn, little remains of the traditional royal family structure.

Royal Family Domestic Politics in the Modern Era: Co-optation, Rebellion and Dissent (Part I)

Concerns are mounting for the well-being of a number of detained family members, amid uncertainty over the reasons for their arrest. The Al Saud is no stranger to intra-familial struggle, as an often bloody history shows, but does the treatment of internal conflict represent a marked shift in approach?

The Bay'ah and Royal Legitimacy: Misguided Ventures or Last Remaining Hope?

Reports that Prince Saud bin Abd al-Muhsin has arranged Cypriot citizenship for himself and family adds to an already grim picture of senior royals living in a state of fear over the upheaval caused by the ambitions of the country's crown prince. In particular, key members of a committee established to ensure legitimacy in the succession have been targeted in an attempt to preemptively strike a blow at potential opposition to his rise.

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