The removal of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, known as the organizer of a new Army of Islam in Syria to topple the Assad regime, from the position of the director general of Saudi Intelligence Agency is emblematic of a new power struggle in Saudi Arabia. The battle of succession continues in Saudi Arabia, as major socioeconomic and political challenges loom large in a country whose leaders have yet to recover from the shocks of the 2011 Arab uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. This new development shows that the Bandar-era of supporting the Takfiri terrorists and jihadists—some of whom are affiliates of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan—is practically over. The mastermind and principal financier of terror networks, Prince Bandar has fallen out of favor with both Washington and Riyadh, especially in recent months in light of the fact that the Syrian crisis has assumed a terminal direction highly unfavorable to the Saudi ruling family.
What explains this change of leadership? Bandar’s influence on shaping Saudi foreign policy has proven counterproductive, to say the least. In recent months, Bandar has spoken of forging an alliance with the nuclear-equipped Pakistan to counterbalance Iran’s potential to grow as a nuclear power in the region. Most significantly, however, Bandar has been a driving force behind the formation of the Islamic Front Coalition in Syria, a move that has yielded no benefits, insofar as their efforts have undermined the Assad regime and have left hundreds of thousands dead, wounded, displaced, or refugees.
At the regional level, the Turkey-Saudi rift over the July 3, 2013 coup in Egypt, which led to the removal of President Morsi from the Egyptian political scene has drastically widened. While Turkey supported the democratically elected Morsi administration, Saudi Arabia chose to support the coup against Morsi. Equally consequential has been the U.S.-Iran rapprochement, which has increasingly been seen as undercutting the traditionally stable Riyadh-Washington axis. Saudi security concerns in the region remain closely related to the role that Iran plays in the region. Most Saudi leaders as such fear that Washington may pull the plug on Riyadh by normalizing its ties with Tehran.
Bandar’s replacement, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, who is currently Saudi interior minister, represents a new strategy in Saudi foreign policy, one that is aimed at containing militancy in Saudi Arabia, mending some fences with Washington over Syria, and adjusting the country’s foreign policy to rapidly changing geopolitical considerations in the region. Most notably, Nayef may be concerned about curbing the increasing and expanding sectarianization of the Syrian conflict that has scarred and exacerbated the region. To the extent that Washington is seeking a more diplomatic and quieter approach than an openly militaristic solution vis-à-vis Syria, Saudi leaders might contemplate a change of approach prior to President Obama’s visit to Riyadh in late March.
The dominant thinking in Saudi Arabia is that the settlement of the decade-old dispute between Iran, the United States, and the European Union (EU) is bound to further weaken Saudi’s policies in the region, undermine its rivalry with Iran, and boost Iran-Turkey ties. While attempts to patch over Saudi-U.S. relations are likely to take center-stage, the Saudis need to adjust their regional policies, largely because the nuclear deal reached in the next 6-12 months by the P5+1 group (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, plus Iran) could fundamentally alter the region’s balance of power. Never has the pace of change in the region’s geopolitical equilibrium been faster and never has the imperative of adjusting to new realities been so widely felt. Will the Saudis embark on a new path and where will it lead?
Mahmood Monshipouri, Ph.D., teaches middle eastern politics at San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley.
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