They are brothers-in-law who have known more secrets and embarked on more secret missions than anyone else in the world during the last quarter-century. One is Saudi Arabia’s outgoing ambassador to the U.S., the other, his successor, who headed Saudi intelligence for 24 years.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan was a fighter pilot, then squadron commander in Dhahran when this reporter first met him in 1971. The son of Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, and of one of his four wives, a Yemeni domestic servant who worked in his palace. Bandar’s air force contacts led him to the United States, where his skills as an edge-of-your-seat raconteur, engaging, debonair, and devil-may-care demeanor won him many friends in high places — and the ambassadorship of Saudi Arabia to the United States.
Bandar accumulated a multibillion-dollar fortune during his 20-year Washington diplomatic reign. He was unfailingly helpful to U.S. defense industries, advising them on where to turn in Saudi Arabia for lucrative after sales services. His legendary 55,000-square-foot, 200-acre mountaintop “Hala Ranch” domain outside Aspen includes a replica of a British pub. It has 19 bathrooms and is larger than the White House.
Bandar and his wife Princess Haifa, the late King Feisal’s daughter, are seldom in Washington, where his vast nine-acre compound on Chain Bridge Road overlooks the Potomac. It has one 26-room house for staff and the main residence with 15 bedrooms. Some of his other homes include a country mansion and the entire village of Glympton ($90 million, including renovations) near London, a palace in Morocco, a palace in Riyadh and a palace-cum-beach house in Jeddah.
The man of hundreds of secret missions for Saudi royals, Presidents Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43, is also a member of the Saudi Cabinet, a position he kept after resigning as ambassador to the U.S. Bandar knows his country’s absolute monarchy must change — or perish in some unpredictable national or regional upheaval. Rumor has it he wants to be close to the throne when and if the evolution he seeks toward a constitutional monarchy takes place.
When seriously ailing King Fahd, almost 80, dies, Crown Prince Abdullah, who has been running the kingdom almost 10 years, becomes the new divine-right-of-Kings monarch. He, too, is an octogenarian (82). When he goes, Sultan, Bandar’s father, also ailing, is in line to succeed him. If the 7,000-male-prince family (and 23,000 wives and children) decides it wants a man who knows anyone-who’s-anyone in the Who’s Who in the World, Bandar is a good outsider’s long shot.
He has jetted all over the world to facilitate the Reagan-Gorbachev entente; talked his father, the defense minister, into secret transfers of funds and arms to the Nicaraguan resistance fighting the Sandinista Marxist regime at a time when any further U.S. aid had been vetoed in Congress by six different “Boland Amendments”; convinced Libya’s mercurial Moammar Gadhafi to ‘fess up to the bombing of PanAm 103; and arranged for the exit of Yasser Arafat and his defeated Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon in 1983.
Bandar’s successor as ambassador to the United States is Prince Turki bin Feisal, ambassador in London for the last three years and formerly head of Saudi intelligence for 24 years. If Bandar is Saudi Arabia’s James Bond, Turki is the kingdom’s George Smiley (of Le Carre fame).
Soft-spoken, Turki was coached in the art of being a spy master by France’s legendary spy chief Count Alexandre de Marenches, a fierce anti-communist who plotted the demise of the Soviet empire with Ronald Reagan Dec. 16, 1980, four weeks before Mr. Reagan was sworn in as president. For 11 years, Marenches ran scores of anti-Soviet covert operations before resigning when the newly elected President Francois Mitterrand put four communist ministers in his first Cabinet.
Turki worked closely with Marenches and the CIA. On Dec. 27, 1979, when the Red Army rolled into Afghanistan, his agency matched the $600 million a year the CIA poured into Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency training and equipping thousands of mujahideen to fight the Soviet occupation.
One of Turki’s assets was Osama bin Laden, one of the 56 children of a Yemeni-born construction tycoon who had a monopoly on the building of all royal palaces in the kingdom.
Osama collected tens of millions from wealthy Saudis for the Afghan campaign. He also took under his wing Arab and other Muslim volunteers funded to fight in Afghanistan by Turki and wealthy princes and private sector entrepreneurs.
By the time the defeated Soviets left Afghanistan in February 1989, bin Laden had been elevated to hero status in Saudi Arabia. So when bin Laden asked to see Turki Aug. 2, 1990, the day Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq, he was not kept waiting.
What followed was described by Turki as one of history’s most expensive laughs. Bin Laden told Turki the royals must not invite the U.S. Army to the kingdom to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait. His “Afghan Arab” fighters could do the job. Turki laughed and a furious bin Laden stormed out.
That was a crucial turning point in history. Bin Laden became convinced the royal family was conspiring with Washington to facilitate the occupation of Saudi Arabia and control of its oil production facilities and that Saddam had been entrapped into invading Kuwait to provide a pretext for U.S. occupation. That was when he decided to take on the royal family — a career path that led him to become the world’s most wanted terrorist.
A yet unsolved mystery was when Turki resigned as intelligence chief after a quarter-century at the helm — just three weeks before September 11, 2001. He says it was merely coincidence. Conspiracy theorists believe Turki knew something very big was in the works and that some Saudis were involved. Again, Turki laughs. He simply needed a break to smell the desert. That didn’t last long before he accepted the post of ambassador to the Court of St. James.
He has many friends in the United States and will be a welcome change after Bandar.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.