Can Saudi's new spymaster help solve Syria crisis?

Prince Bandar bin Sultan may be in place to help the Saudi government's allies, including the US, with its latest knotty problem in the region: how to push Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from power.

In this June 4, 2008 photo, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan is seen at his palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
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During the 22 years that Prince Bandar bin Sultan served as Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, four American presidents enlisted his help in dealing with rulers they deemed troublesome.

Now the man whom one Saudi historian calls a "fixer" may be in place to help his government's allies, including Washington, with their latest knotty problem in the region: how to push Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from power.

This month King Abdullah named the charismatic 63-year-old prince as his new intelligence chief - a move that analysts say will likely lead to an expansion of Saudi and American efforts to aid Mr Al Assad's opponents.

The effort appears poised to expand. The Reuters news agency reported on Friday that the White House has drafted a presidential directive that would authorise greater US covert assistance for the rebels, while still stopping short of arming them.

It was not clear whether the US president, Barack Obama, has signed the document, and US officials declined to comment on the draft authorisation, Reuters said.

Still, the pieces seem to be falling in place for stepped-up Saudi and US cooperation in Syria, said Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the US Central Intelligence Agency

Prince Bandar's promotion to head Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency "encourages and facilitates as close a relationship [as possible] between that organisation and US counterparts," he said.

King Abdullah has been a long-time critic of Mr Al Assad, and for the last several months, Riyadh has reportedly been supplying funds to the rebels.

With the choice of Prince Bandar - a former fighter pilot, an avid fan of American football and one of the most renowned networkers ever to work the corridors of power in Washington - the king now has someone in his government's top intelligence post whom he knows US officials are comfortable with and listen to.

"From a Saudi perspective, [Prince Bandar's] appointment brings the United States closer to its mindset," said Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.

Washington is believed to have lobbied for the prince's selection, Mr Henderson said - a sign of the trust Prince Bandar continues to have in US policy circles after serving in Washington between 1983 and 2005.

David Ottaway, who has written a biography of the prince, said his new job represents the fulfilment of a longtime personal ambition.

"He'll push tough policy toward Syria and Iran," said Ottaway. "Bandar is the hawk of the House of Saud."

There is no doubt that the prince - whose mother was a commoner and father was the late crown prince, Sultan Bin Abdulaziz - is one of Riyadh's most well-connected and savvy diplomats - "a fixer," said Saudi historian Madawi Al Rasheed.

During his tenure as ambassador to Washington, the prince carried out important diplomatic chores in concert with, and often for, top US officials. His 32-room mansion in Aspen, Colorado, was a regular refuge for the rich and powerful.

During the Reagan administration, Prince Bandar organised $32 million (Dh117.5m) in Saudi funding for rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

The prince was one of George HW Bush's "closest friends", Bob Woodward writes in his 2006 book about post-2003 US policy in Iraq, State of Denial.

In 1997, according to Mr Woodward, the prince played a key role in persuading George W Bush to run for president. At the behest of the elder Bush, he flew his private plan to Austin, Texas, and gave the younger Bush a tutorial in foreign affairs, allaying the then-Texas governor's insecurities about a key gap in his resume.

In the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he lobbied the French government for support of UN Security Council action against Saddam Hussein. That year, he also helped work out the deal that ended with Muammar Qaddafi agreeing to give up most of Libya's weapons of mass destruction.

The behind-the-scenes deals were not without controversy.

The covert assistance to anti-Sandinista forces, in defiance of a congressional ban, eventually engulfed the Reagan administration in scandal and brought President Reagan to the brink of calls for his impeachment.

But that didn't stop Bandar from being welcomed by Reagan's successor, George H W Bush, with whom he held regular White House lunches.

Following the September 11 attacks, Prince Bandar was forced on the defensive and fell out of favour in Washington after he allegedly misrepresented the Saudi government's position on the Middle East peace process

to US officials.

Since returning to Riyadh seven years ago and taking over as head of the government's national security council, he has reportedly undertaken sensitive diplomatic missions to China and Pakistan to buttress support for the Saudi government and was a key supporter of military intervention in Bahrain, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported..

Prince Bandar's return to a job that once again puts him at the heart of US-Saudi ties reflects Riyadh's worries that the events of the past 20 months in the region may not be adequately understood in Washington.

"Riyadh has been concerned that the Obama administration has been viewing the so-called 'Arab Spring' as some glorious era of democracy, while the House of Saud views it as [bringing about] immense and unpredictable instability," Mr Henderson said.

Despite the prince's proven mastery of Washington's rituals and institutions, Ms Al Rasheed believes the skills of one man will not necessarily help his country adapt to a fast-changing regional landscape.

"[Bandar's return] is an act in desperation," he said. "Foreign policy and diplomacy have both failed to lead to results that are wanted by the Saudi leadership."

Other Saudis say, however, that Saudi-US cooperation on Syria - an undertaking in which Prince Bandar has now become the linchpin - will ease Riyadh's worries considerably.

"[Syria] is a good chance for the United States to be closer to Saudi Arabia and to Sunni Islam," said political analyst Abdullah Al-Shammri, who writes a column for the Saudi daily Al-Yaum.

"It is really a historical moment."