Prince still charming, but... Saudi star dims: Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi ambassador, is not the presence in Washington that he was when U.S.-Saudi ties were cozier.

Sun Journal

November 24, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It wasn't too long ago that Saudi Arabia's ambassador could walk into the Oval Office without an appointment, arrange to have highly sensitive American intelligence reports brought to his home or kick in millions of dollars to finance covert action that the United States wanted to undertake abroad.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz still has enviable access at the White House. But he is no longer the swashbuckling presence who somehow infused diplomacy, war planning and even the Middle East peace process with a sense of adventure.

In fact, he's not much of a presence at all.

Somewhat bored, periodically sidelined by back problems and increasingly preoccupied with his family, Prince Bandar spends noticeably less time in Washington. He now is in Saudi Arabia a third of each year, and each year there are lengthy vacations spent at his retreat in Aspen, Colo.

His diminished profile reflects a subtle change in U.S.-Saudi ties, as well as a less chummy relationship between Prince Bandar and the White House now that it is run by Democrats instead of Republicans.

The mutual dependence of the two nations remains as strong: Western economies need Persian Gulf oil, and the gulf states need U.S. protection. But after 1 1/2 decades of steady improvement, cooperation between the two countries may have peaked.

The terrorist bombing last week of a U.S. training center for the Saudi Arabian National Guard showed how the kingdom's heavy reliance on the United States for protection can cause its rulers grief. The presence of thousands of Americans there draws hostility not just from extremists but from members of the Saudi middle class.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has disappointed U.S. officials who hoped it would play a more active role in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Prince Bandar first appeared on the Washington scene in the late 1970s. And he quickly broke the mold of gulf diplomats, figures who until then operated only behind the scenes.

With his trim goatee, well-cut double-breasted suits and his persuasive, idiomatic English and talent as an amateur stand-up comic, Prince Bandar seemed to be the perfect bridge between the reclusive desert kingdom and the anything-goes character of the United States. But what looked like spontaneity was not.

He plunged into studies at the U.S. Air War College and a specially tailored master's program in international relations at the Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.

"Underneath the fly-boy bon vivant is a very astute political mind," says David E. Long, a retired Foreign Service officer and gulf expert who designed the master's program for Prince Bandar.

He acquired his savvy in childhood. Son of a concubine, the prince spent his early years as something of an outsider in the royal household. He once said that his distant relationship with his father, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, now the kingdom's defense minister, "taught me to have patience and to calculate."

Even before being appointed ambassador in 1983, Prince Bandar sized up the Reagan administration's foreign policy in the Middle East: He energetically supported the unsuccessful bid to end Lebanon's civil war, joining American envoys' shuttle missions and sending a blizzard of idea-filled memos dubbed Bandar-grams.

"He had extraordinary energy, enthusiasm and a sense of the practical which, frankly, for Arab princes was quite exceptional," says Geoffrey Kemp, a Reagan aide who is now with the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom.

When the United States began to favor Iraq in its war against Iran, Prince Bandar allowed U.S. officials to use his home as the venue for passing to Iraq's ambassador intelligence on Iranian troop movements.

And when Congress moved to cut off U.S. funding for the anti-Communist contra rebels fighting to topple the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, Prince Bandar persuaded his government to come through with millions of dollars in covert aid.

For all his Western extroversion, however, Prince Bandar remained a fiercely loyal servant of his uncle, King Fahd, who has ruled Saudi Arabia since 1982.

The high point of Prince Bandar's Washington career came when George Bush, a Texas oil man with long-standing Saudi ties, entered the White House, and the prince developed a relationship of macho camaraderie with top officials. Gen. Colin L. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, writes that his familiarity with the prince "approached the outrageous and the profane."

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Prince Bandar played a key role in securing a U.S. commitment to defend Saudi Arabia and in winning King Fahd's consent to station hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in the kingdom.

He also became a major salesman in the United States during the build-up to the war to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.

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