For a generation, Prince Bandar bin Sultan was Riyadh's man in Washington. As the Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005, he was even dubbed "Bandar Bush" for his close ties to that powerful American political dynasty. After leaving Washington, apparently burned out, he returned to Saudi Arabia to head the newly established Saudi National Security Council, the function of which was not, and still is not, clear. However, he continued to sneak back into the United States periodically because the king quickly decided he preferred Bandar over his successor, Prince Turki al-Faisal, as his channel to the White House -- a situation that eventually led Turki to resign in protest.
And then, around 2008, Bandar vanished from the public eye. Exactly what caused Bandar to fall out of political favor remains unclear, but he had acquired no shortage of enemies, even within the royal family, over his long tenure as the principal contact between Saudi Arabia and its most important ally.
Bandar's disappearance prompted a number of conspiracy theories. The Iranian media, for example, has rather creatively accused him of masterminding al Qaeda's activities in Iraq and funding al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni Islamist groups in Lebanon in an attempt to undermine Hezbollah.
But now, Bandar is back. A brief Saudi Press Agency story last week reported: "Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, Chief of Saudi Intelligence, welcomed Prince Bandar home at the airport."
Prince Muqrin was joined in welcoming Bandar by a virtual who's who of Saudi political figures: Prince Khalid bin Sultan, assistant minister of defense and aviation and inspector general for military affairs; Prince Muhammad bin Naif, assistant minister of interior for security affairs; Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, state minister and president of the Court of the Presidency of the Cabinet; Prince Faisal bin Khalid bin Sultan, advisor to the crown prince; Prince Salman bin Sultan, assistant secretary-general of the National Security Council. According to the Saudi Press Agency, "more senior princes" were also in attendance.
That's one helluva welcome, by any standard. By Saudi standards, it is enormous: an uncle, a half brother, three significant cousins, and a nephew, never mind the unnamed senior princes. The report said he had arrived "from abroad," but gave no further details. There wasn't even a photo, though one report says he has lost a considerable amount of weight.
So what's going on? First, a word of caution. There is an old saw that people who actually know what is going on in the Saudi royal family don't talk about it -- and people who talk about it don't know what is going on. All too often, this saying is a convenient device used by those close to the House of Saud to undermine reports critical about Saudi Arabia, but it's also an important reminder that we'll never know as much as we'd like about the kingdom's opaque politics.
Bandar has struggled with his health for years, recently undergoing two operations at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The most prosaic explanation for his return is that, after convalescing in Morocco, where his father, Crown Prince Sultan, is vacationing, he has recovered and has now come home. His most likely ailment is a bad back, though two biographies in recent years have reported that Bandar has also had problems with alcohol and depression. David B. Ottaway, in The King's Messenger, described him as a "more than occasional drinker." And his (probably now former) friend William Simpson, in The Prince: The Secret Story of the World's Most Intriguing Royal, identified the mid-1990s as Bandar's "first period of full-blown depression."