He has negotiated weapons deals and instigated armed conflicts: Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan is one of the most influential men behind the scenes in global politics. His job is to increase the kingdom’s influence in the world.
By Susanne Koelbl
June 19, 2019
On my January 2018 visit to Prince Bandar bin Sultan in his palace in Riyadh, he is lounging in an overstuffed, sand-colored armchair, smoking a cigar as thick as a tree branch. Bandar has a broad face with sparkling brown eyes, his dark hands contrast with the white thawb he is wearing along with sandals. His keeps his full beard trimmed short, but even though it has gone gray, it is still something of a trademark.
Bandar’s fixes his gaze on two screens, each over one square meter (10 square feet) in size. One of them shows CNN while the other displays a dozen international channels simultaneously, broadcasting from Moscow, Washington, Beirut and Tripoli. This is Bandar’s world — and frequently, he himself is traveling to one of the places shown on the monitors.
In one way or another, the prince has been involved in almost every international crisis over the past four decades. Probably all of them. If there’s a person who has an answer to my questions — how the Cold War ended and extremism came to Afghanistan, why the Americans occupied Iraq and Syrian President Bashar Assad won the war — then it’s this veteran of the diplomatic front lines. Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
A businessman friend of his helped arrange the meeting.
At 2 p.m., a chauffeur picks me up from my apartment in Riyadh’s city center in a black limousine. The journey to Bandar’s palace, located just outside of Riyadh, takes 30 minutes. At the end of a long wall, heavy green gates open and the car slides into the grounds. It is a vast area and the palace is a labyrinth of marble corridors decorated with mosaics, handcrafted wooden doors, fountains, lights, flowers and verdant foliage.
At the time we meet in Riyadh, Prince Bandar is 68 years old, having spent 22 of those years serving as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. Until 2014, Bandar headed up the Saudi intelligence service before taking over leadership of the National Security Council. He has provided arms to rebels in South America, in Central Asia and, most recently, in Syria. Working on behalf of the king, he oversaw some of the largest arms deals of all time. At times, he even wound up negotiating the peace settlement of an insurgency he himself had instigated.
An Unequal Pair
We speak for four hours, a blink of an eye in this breathtaking life. By the end, I have a much better understanding of how Prince Bandar managed to put these two systems — the one in Riyadh and the one in Washington — which are so contradictory, essentially irreconcilable, into a kind of permanent mutual enchantment. Not unlike a young married couple where both actually wish they had a different partner and yet pretend to be in love, drunk on an exorbitant dowry that gets bigger every time the relationship grows rocky.