DAVID IGNATIUS: A kingdom on the edge?

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – By appointing Prince Bandar bin Sultan as its new intelligence chief, Saudi Arabia has installed what looks like a war Cabinet at a time of rising tensions with Iran and growing internal dissent from its Shiite minority.
The Saudis have also heightened their alert level in other ways to prepare for possible regional conflict. Some Saudi military and security personnel were mobilized last month – called back from summer leave or told to cancel planned vacations. One explanation of the mobilization making the rounds in Riyadh is that the Saudis expected that Turkey might retaliate against Syria for the shoot-down of one of its fighters in late June.
The installation of a new intelligence chief came as Saudi Arabia was stepping up its support for insurgents in Syria seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. In this covert effort, the Saudis are working with the U.S., France, Turkey, Jordan and other nations that want Assad out.
Bandar will succeed Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, who was barely visible in the West during his years as Saudi intelligence chief. This led to widespread comment that Muqrin had been fired, but he is said to retain the confidence of King Abdullah, who will use him as a special emissary to Pakistan and other Muslim nations where Muqrin’s traditional Saudi demeanor will be useful.
Bandar, the flamboyant former ambassador to Washington, had appeared to be sidelined in the past several years because of poor health and personal issues. His appointment now as intelligence chief probably signals the desire of both King Abdullah and the new Crown Prince Salman to have an experienced covert operator to handle sensitive foreign contacts at a time of sharply rising tensions.
Bandar would be a useful intermediary, for example, if Saudi Arabia sought nuclear weapons or ballistic missile technology from China to defend against such threats from Iran.
Bandar is especially well-placed to manage intelligence liaison with the United States, given his several decades here as ambassador. Bandar maintained close relations with the CIA during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and was said to have helped organize secret funding for joint Saudi-American covert actions in the Middle East. During the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, Bandar was so close to President George H.W. Bush that he became known as “Bandar Bush,” a moniker that continued under President George W. Bush.
Bandar continued to play a behind-the scenes role even after he left Washington in 2005.
Interestingly, Bandar has been a special target for Iranian media attacks in recent days.
At home, the Saudis have been struggling to contain Shiite protests in Al-Qatif, in the kingdom’s oil-rich eastern province.
The Saudis haven’t been able to stop the insurgency in Al-Qatif; indeed, it appears to be worsening. The protesters may hope to provoke the Saudis into a bloody crackdown, which would leave scores dead and encourage much wider demonstrations and international outcry. Saudi reformers argue that the best way to quell Shiite protests is to give them the full economic and political rights of citizenship.
Iran’s Press TV on July 27 featured an interview with an analyst headlined: “Collapse of al-Saud regime becomes more realistic than before.” The information may have been Tehran’s propaganda, but it helps explain why the Saudi monarchy is going to battle stations.
David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.