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Troubles in the House of Saud?

6 minute read
Elaine Shannon and Adam Zagorin/Washington

At a time when the U.S. is striving to enlist the support of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led moderate states to help counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, few foreign diplomats are as important a player as Riyadh’s man in Washington. Which is why Prince Turki Al Faisal’s sudden, unexplained resignation earlier this week, which came after just 15 months in his post, has left Washington so puzzled and concerned about possible palace intrigue in the House of Saud.

One source close to the Saudi family says a variety of factors played into Turki’s surprising departure — both personality differences, but also genuine differences of opinion inside the monarchy over how to deal with Iran’s growing threat in the region. This advisor said that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the current national security adviser and former longtime Saudi ambassador in Washington, as well as his father (who is also defense minister) Prince Sultan, and others in the so-called Sudeiri branch of the royal family have long favored cautious, but somewhat more aggressive methods to deal with Iran than has the al-Faisal branch, represented by Prince Turki and his brother, the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. However, another well-placed Saudi source disputes this notion, claiming that the Prince would never have resigned over any such differing views — and that in any case there is no such clear factional split over Iran policy.

Speaking to a foreign policy group in Philadelphia last week before his resignation, Turki did say that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were “clearly a concern for the global community.” But in sharp contrast to the Bush Administration’s policy of isolating Iran, he stressed that “we speak directly with Iran on all issues. We find that talking with them is better than not talking with them.”

Whatever internal differences the Saudis may have, it is a well-established fact that though there have often been disagreements on 9/11 policy, Afghanistan, Iraq and other difficult issues, the family has always quietly reached a consensus that then becomes national policy.

Still, one thing that does not seem to be at issue in the current episode is that a personality conflict between Bandar and Turki played a big role in his abrupt exit. According to sources close to the family who spoke to TIME, Turki had grown fed up and “angry” that Bandar was still trying to act as Saudi Arabia’s point man in dealing directly with President Bush and Vice President Cheney. More general reports of bad blood between the two Saudi princes have also fed rumors that Bandar, also the King’s nephew, is positioning himself to replace Turki’s brother Faisal as foreign minister. Turki has also been rumored as likely to succeed his brother, but some Saudi watchers say that, at least for now, the King and other decision makers are undecided.

As distressed as the White House may be over the apparent disarray in the House of Saud, it is just as reluctant to inject itself into an internal Saudi squabble or risk offending Bandar, who is close to the Bush family and others in the Administration. That means that only King Abdullah can sort out the mess. In the past, the King’s style has been to move quietly and cautiously.

The internal Saudi turmoil couldn’t come at a worse time for the Bush Administration. Vice President Cheney was in Riyadh just last weekend for talks with King Abdullah. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wants to use the Saudi-founded Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), conceived as an economic body, as a vehicle for marshalling Sunni Arab support on regional security issues, particularly U.S. efforts to blunt Iranian ambitions. Rice has prevailed upon the original GCC members (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman) to add Jordan and Egypt to their security loop. According to a Rice aide, a working group of diplomats, including a U.S. representative, will be spun off after the new year, to hold frequent meetings and consultations.

But there have recently been some signs that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. may not see eye to eye on how to stabilize the region. There has been growing speculation that King Abdullah will soon accede to pleas from leaders of Sunni tribes in Iraq — some of whom have blood ties with members of the Saudi leadership — for money for arms and armor for their own militias, especially if the U.S. were to begin to withdraw and the country fall further into chaos. And though the Bush Administration has taken issue with a recent New York Times report that King Abdullah himself told Cheney much the same thing during his recent visit to the Kingdom, there is little doubt that the Saudis are feeling pressure from their Sunni brethren in Iraq. “The tribal leaders that come to Saudi Arabia are saying, their feeling is that the [Iraqi] central government is basically completely hostage to these [Shi’ite] militias, especially this prime minister,” says one Saudi-watcher. “These are tribal leaders who are not involved in the insurgency and want to salvage whatever can be salvaged in a central authority in Baghdad.”

The Saudi government hasn’t yet funneled large sums to the tribes, the source says, for fear of fueling sectarian conflict. Saudi Arabia strongly opposes partition and would prefer to see a strong central government able to offer security to all Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic groups. But, the Saudi expert says, “if things really continue to spiral out of control, as they are currently, and there is more and more concrete evidence of Iranian involvement with the Shia militias and with the continuous ethnic cleansing that is currently happening, adding to a potential announcement of a U.S. withdrawal, it will be very difficult for the kingdom not to get involved in the Iraq situation.” And a split within the House of Saud, whether based on personality or policy, could make it even harder for the U.S. to convince them to stay on the sidelines.

With reporting by Scott MacLeod/Cairo

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