Something appears to be going on inside the ruling circles of Saudi Arabia. Which means that something is up among the various branches of the Saud family, with its thousands of princes. On this family rests ownership of the world's largest pool of oil and the balance of power in the Middle East, not to mention the principal funding of radical Islamism.
James Lewis a few days ago noted the sudden departure of Ambarassador Sultan Al-Turki and speculated it might have something to do with worries over Iranian pilgrims soon to arrive in large numbers for the Hajj (which begins the day after Christmas). Al Turki has a background in the Saudi intelligence services, and might have been called back to handle a possible Shia challenge to Sunni guardianship of Mecca and Medina, source of legitimacy for the Sauds. Yesterday, The New York Times linked Al Turki's departure to internal disputes over Iran:
Privately some Saudi officials and analysts with knowledge of the situation say Prince Turki resigned over deep differences with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the national security minister and former Washington ambassador, over how to deal with Iran.
Prince Bandar is believed to favor the tough American approach of confronting Iran, analysts say, while Prince Turki advocates more diplomatic tactics, including negotiating with Iran.
If this is the case, then the successor to Prince Turki as Saudi ambassador - Adel al-Jubeir, a foreign policy adviser to King Abdullah - is a wild card, Saudi and American officials said Thursday.
Polished and American-educated, Mr. Jubeir, 44, once worked for Prince Bandar when he was ambassador to Washington. Mr. Jubeir became well known as the public face of Saudi Arabia, defending Saudi policy after the Sept. 11 attacks, appearing on talk shows and escorting NBC's White House correspondent at the time, Campbell Brown, around town.
But Saudi officials said that Mr. Jubeir did not necessarily share Prince Bandar's opinions. "Basically, the king is putting his own man in America," one Saudi official said. "Adel will be a direct line between the king and the administration."
Today, Robin Wright of the Washington Post adds heat to the speculation about a dynastic spilt.
Eighteen months ago, Prince Bandar bin Sultan ended a legendary 22-year career as the face of Saudi Arabia in the United States. Word at the time was that he was bored, preferring his palatial Aspen, Colo., lodge to Washington. As it turns out, however, Bandar has secretly visited Washington almost monthly over the past year -- and is at least as pivotal today in influencing U.S. policy as he was in his years as ambassador.
Last week, his successor, Turki, abruptly resigned from the post -- partly, sources close to the royal family said, because of Bandar's back-channel trips to meet with top U.S. officials, including Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.
Turki was kept so out of the loop that Bandar often did not inform him he was in town, much less tell him what he was doing, the sources said. Twice, the Saudi Embassy was told by an outsider that Bandar had arrived -- and the embassy sent someone to the airport to look for his private plane to confirm it, according to the source who provided the tip.
The rise of Bandar, who is now Saudi national security adviser, may reflect the waning influence of the sons of the late King Faisal, who dominated the diplomatic and intelligence services for decades, say sources close to the family. Turki, who was intelligence chief before becoming ambassador to Britain and then the United States, has poor chemistry with King Abdullah, they note. His brother Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has been foreign minister since Henry A. Kissinger's era, is ill.
As relations among the royals frayed over the past year, Turki was increasingly squeezed financially. The kingdom did not provide the millions needed to pay Saudi bills, according to contractors and sources close to the royal family. A single contractor -- Qorvis Communications LLC, which oversees Saudi image-building -- has not been paid more than $10 million this year, its entire annual contract, confirms Qorvis partner Michael Petruzzello. Because Qorvis subcontracts to smaller firms, the unpaid bill has left the most high-profile American lobbyists for the kingdom unpaid all year. Others have also not been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to contractors.
Saudi flacks going unpaid sounds like the punchline to a joke about causes to which I am least likely to offer sympathy. Nevertheless, the stiffing of image-builders must indicate some pretty serious infighting among the royals. The Saudis' rule is underwritten by American security guarantees, and they have spent billions on PR efforts in this country, ranging from donations to presidential libraries to funding think tanks to advertising campaigns and parties. A reputation for unpaid bills does not attract first rate talent.
The Kingdom remains in many ways medieval in outlook, despite possessing all the high tech gadgets money can buy. And paranoia seems to be a way of life for many there. The Times article included a gem of Arab paranoia when it wrote:
Last week, a group of prominent Saudi clerics and university professors called on the government to begin actively backing Iraq's Sunnis. The clerics described what they called a Persian-Jewish partnership besieging the Sunnis.
Mahmood Ahmedinejad would be quite surprised to read this, I am sure. It could even be liofe-threatening if anyone in Iran's ruling circles were to believe it.
Of course, the overarching irony of the entire situation is this: the split between Sunni and Shia Islam began with a dispute over dynastic succession to Muhammad. If Robin Wright is correct, a similar dispute over succession, between the Faisal and Abdullah lines of succession within the Saud dynasty, may be causing Sunni relations with the Shia mullahs to either worsen or improve, depending on whose views predominate.
Such are the ways of medieval monarchies. And don't forget how such monarchies often resolve such disputes over succession. The losers lose their heads, a practice not unknown in modern Saudi Arabia.