Hugh Miles: Prince Bandar in prison

Bandar: in the brig?A few months ago I saw an Iranian report that claimed that Prince Bandar — known as "Bandar Bush" for his closeness to the Bush family — was under arrest after having tried to plot a coup. I was skeptical, and emailed a Saudi specialist about it, who dismissed it instantly. Bandar hasn't been seen much since he left the US after being replaced as ambassador, and is probably unhappy with King Abdullah's policies and the rise of Prince Nayef as the most likely successor to the throne. This much is known. The idea of a coup sounded pretty far-fetched.

Yesterday Hugh Miles wrote in the LRB blog that Saudi dissidents claim Bandar and four generals may be held in prison:

According to Saudi opposition sources, Bandar is now in Dhaban Prison, in north west Jeddah, a high security jail where terrorist suspects and political opposition figures are held. Bandar is said to be in a special wing where the other prisoners are four senior generals: one from the army, one from the royal guard, one from the national guard and one from internal security. Bandar’s lawyer in the US denies he is in prison and says he has been seen out and about recently, although he wouldn’t divulge when, where or even in which country.

The last official sighting of Bandar in public seems to have been on 10 December 2008, when he met the king in Jeddah. Since then he has missed a string of important events, and no one will say why. In September 2009, when his position as head of the Kingdom’s National Security Council was renewed for another four years, he didn’t appear in public to profess his allegiance to the king, as is customary. No official explanation was forthcoming. The same month, Bandar missed the Dallas Cowboys’ first home game against the New York Giants in their new stadium. Bandar has been a Cowboys fan since he flew as a fighter pilot instructor in Texas in the 1970s. He normally sits next to his friend Jerry Jones, the team’s owner. Then in October Bandar failed to show up as one of the official delegation accompanying King Abdullah on his landmark visit to Damascus, which ended the four-year estrangement between Saudi Arabia and Syria that began with the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005.

But the most significant event Bandar missed was in December 2009 when his ill father, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, returned to the Kingdom after months convalescing in Morocco. As usual, the event was shown live on TV and Prince Sultan received many members of the Saudi royal family. Some senior figures – such as Princes Talal, Muteb and Abdulrahman – weren’t there for known reasons. But Bandar’s absence hasn’t been accounted for.

The lack of any official explanation of Bandar’s whereabouts is especially puzzling since he is supposed to head an important government agency. When he returned from Washington in 2005 after his 22-year stint as ambassador, his appointment as secretary-general of the newly formed National Security Council was meant to signal a return to the family fold and a higher domestic profile. In the months before his disappearance he travelled frequently to Moscow, both to negotiate arms deals and to try to persuade the Kremlin to halt its military co-operation with Iran. There’s been speculation that his activity in Russia could be connected to his disappearance: some blogs claim that Bandar’s supposed abortive coup was exposed by Russian intelligence.

That would be quite huge. Miles speculates that whatever the truth of the matter, Bandar's era of influence is over. This also means one of the major advocates of a strong relationship with the US is now absent, at a time when the next king of Saudi Arabia is likely to be Prince Nayef, who is less sanguine about Amreeka. And so, little by little, US dominion over the Middle East is being eroded.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

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