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December 23, 2006
The Deadbeat Does Not Go On

Some of the mystery surrounding the odd departure of Turki al-Faisal as Saudi ambassador to the US has begun to unravel. The Washington Post reports that Turki left millions in unpaid bills and found himself undercut by Bandar bin Sultan, his predecessor, as Bandar apparently conducted higher-level diplomacy than Turki:

Eighteen months ago, Prince Bandar bin Sultan ended a legendary 22-year career as the face of Saudi Arabia in the United States. Word at the time was that he was bored, preferring his palatial Aspen, Colo., lodge to Washington. As it turns out, however, Bandar has secretly visited Washington almost monthly over the past year -- and is at least as pivotal today in influencing U.S. policy as he was in his years as ambassador.

Last week, his successor, Turki, abruptly resigned from the post -- partly, sources close to the royal family said, because of Bandar's back-channel trips to meet with top U.S. officials, including Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.

Turki was kept so out of the loop that Bandar often did not inform him he was in town, much less tell him what he was doing, the sources said. Twice, the Saudi Embassy was told by an outsider that Bandar had arrived -- and the embassy sent someone to the airport to look for his private plane to confirm it, according to the source who provided the tip.

The rise of Bandar, who is now Saudi national security adviser, may reflect the waning influence of the sons of the late King Faisal, who dominated the diplomatic and intelligence services for decades, say sources close to the family. Turki, who was intelligence chief before becoming ambassador to Britain and then the United States, has poor chemistry with King Abdullah, they note. His brother Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has been foreign minister since Henry A. Kissinger's era, is ill.

As relations among the royals frayed over the past year, Turki was increasingly squeezed financially. The kingdom did not provide the millions needed to pay Saudi bills, according to contractors and sources close to the royal family. A single contractor -- Qorvis Communications LLC, which oversees Saudi image-building -- has not been paid more than $10 million this year, its entire annual contract, confirms Qorvis partner Michael Petruzzello. Because Qorvis subcontracts to smaller firms, the unpaid bill has left the most high-profile American lobbyists for the kingdom unpaid all year. Others have also not been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to contractors.

The Saudis appear to have some difficulties in their approach to foreign policy, and it's splitting the family. The continuing influence of Bandar made it clear that Turki had not earned enough trust across enough of the royal princes to be left alone to do his job. The lack of communication between Bandar and Turki made these interventions a particular humiliation to the recently-departed ambassador, and it's hard to see that as anything short of deliberate. It explains his abrupt and unheralded resignation; he probably got tired of all his American contacts pretending that Bandar had never been in town.

More troubling is the string of debts that Turki left behind. Foreign governments are notorious for paying their bills rather leisurely, and the Sauds have cash literally erupting out of the ground. Still, one has to wonder why the Saudi government has taken so long to clear some of these debts, especially to Qorvis. Recall that the Saudi government considers its public-relations offensive in the US a high priority after 9/11, especially given that so many of the attackers came from Saudi Arabia. Does it make sense to have the public relations firm in charge of sweet-talking America put them into Collections?

One might think that the money went someplace else -- which also might explain why Bandar has spent so much time in Washington without Turki's knowledge.

At the heart of the conflict, though, is policy. The al-Faisals have favored dialogue with Iran, and the bin Sultans oppose any dealings with Teheran. Bandar kept coming to DC primarily to counteract Turki's advice to the Bush administration, and relied on his long-time personal relationships with Dick Cheney and Stephen Hadley. While Turki spoke publicly about the need to engage Iran in 'all things", Bandar furiously tried to prevent that advice from gaining a toehold among American national-security decision-makers. The nadir of this chaotic Saudi policy came when Cheney visited Riyadh and Turki pointedly did not receive an invitation to attend. When Bandar resumed his contacts after the trip, Turki quit and returned home.

Given Turki's reported contacts with jihadis, it's probably for the best. In the meantime, the Saudis have apparently chosen a non-royal to replace Turki -- which means Bandar will probably continue his "unofficial" diplomacy for the foreseeable future.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 23, 2006 9:43 AM

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