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Prince Bandar takes helm of Saudi intelligence at time of crisis

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By GIS/Defense &  Foreign Affairs

The appointment on July 19, of Prince Bandar bin Sultan as the Director General of the Mukhabarat al A’amah, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s main intelligence agency, signifies a new era in Saudi Arabia’s internal power base and in the Kingdom’s strategic power projection, particularly with regard to the U.S., Iran, and Syria.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan greets President Ronald Reagan in 1983 shortly before being named ambassador to the United States.

Prince Bandar, King ‘Abdallah’s nephew, replaced Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the King’s half- brother and Bandar’s half-uncle.

Certainly, Prince Bandar — who served as Ambassador to the U.S. from 1983 to 2005 — is close to the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and other senior Qataris, with whom he shares an investment in al-Jazeera broadcasting. He also shares a mutual objective to maneuver around Iranian activities in the region, and against the Iranian-backed ‘Alawite Syrian Government. But King ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud is under few illusions about Qatar’s feelings toward Saudi Arabia; Doha does not see itself as a close ally of Saudi Arabia, except on some issues.

Prince Bandar, however, is known for his close ties with the United States and with Qatar, and even though the King was less than happy with his earlier activities related to Syria, Bandar is now seen as the man who can work with Washington, Doha, and Ankara. Essentially, despite the fact that U.S. President Barack Obama made a strong commitment, privately, to King ‘Abdallah in June 2009 — on Obama’s first visit as U.S. President to the Kingdom — all reports indicate that the King feels that the U.S. is effectively abandoning Saudi Arabia. Prince Bandar is seen as the “go-to” Saudi Prince on matters relating to the U.S.

In all of this, Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish support for the Syrian opposition is a central theme of what is essentially a regional push-back against what has been a highly-successful projection of Iranian strategic influence out to the Mediterranean. That Iranian influence could have been better achieved without using religion as its main vehicle is another matter. In the meantime, as Bandar now was tasked to come to grips with the matter, the Syrian issue came to the fore in a new way by late July 2012.

Even though the Iraqi Kurds are Sunni, they have long enjoyed a strategic relationship with Iran. Now, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has committed to a relationship between the Kurdistan Regional Government (of northern Iraq) and Syrian Kurds.

Turkish Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdogan has announced that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would pay a visit to northern Iraq by Aug. 1, at the very latest to “share Turkey’s sensitivities and determination on this issue” with Iraqi Kurdish leaders. But the path is clear: Turkish, Qatari, and Saudi efforts to promote a Sunni (Muslim Brothers) seizure of power in Syria have prompted a predictable backlash, supported quietly by Iran, which would extend Kurdish reach into Syria, and provide a further strengthening of the base which the Turkish Kurdish movement, the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan) can use to expand its war inside Turkey.

This is the major showdown in which Saudi Arabia must find its role. Until now, the Saudi government has attempted to keep its profile low, operating as a financing arm and with discreet diplomacy. Now, with the Syrian situation, matters were, by the end of July, coming to a head, and Iran was quietly calling Turkey’s bluff, and, by definition, those who support Turkey’s moves against Iran’s major regional ally, Syria.

Tehran is also in no doubt as to Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the attempts to change the government in Syria. And Iran has, at it has demonstrated with the creation of an “Islamic Republic of Eastern Arabia” inside Saudi Arabia, shown that it can mobilize the Shi’a of Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing regions.

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