The Prince and the Revolution

Saudi Arabia is bringing back its most talented operator to manage the Arab Spring. But can Bandar stem the rot in Riyadh?

On July 19, on the eve of the Saudi weekend and the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi government orchestrated its equivalent of Washington's Friday afternoon news dump: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, son of the late crown prince and defense minister, Sultan, was appointed the new intelligence chief.

The kingdom may want minimal coverage and analysis of Bandar's appointment, but it is bound to be disappointed. Bandar used to be one of Saudi Arabia's flashiest diplomats, a longtime ambassador to the United States renowned for manipulating people and policy in the kingdom's favor, and sometimes also in favor of the U.S. government. At the very least, his appointment is a reflection of King Abdullah's concerns about developments in the Middle East, particularly Syria, and the limited talent pool in the House of Saud to meet the challenges. Frankly, it suggests panic in Riyadh.

Where does one start? Bandar certainly used to be a firm pair of hands, but recently that grasp has been shakier. Although Bandar endeared himself to successive U.S. administrations for being able to get things done -- as well as the sumptuous parties he hosted at his official residence in Virginia overlooking the Potomac -- the prevailing story about him recently has been about his mental state. William Sampson, a (friendly) biographer, noted that Bandar's "first period of full-blown depression" came in the mid-1990s. Another biographer, David Ottaway, described Bandar as a "more than occasional drinker," and most conversations about him seemed to revolve around, only partly mischievously, whether he had finished detoxification or not.

In October 2010, the Saudi Press Agency announced that Bandar had returned to the kingdom "from abroad," to be met at the airport by a bevy of princes. This development prompted me to write a Foreign Policy article making the case that "Bandar is back."

To my slight embarrassment, Bandar then disappeared from sight. But I wasn't wholly surprised about last week's announcement because Bandar has recently reemerged. In June, when his uncle Crown Prince Nayef died, the Saudi Press Agency published a photo of Bandar, saying he offered his condolences. A week ago, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Jeddah, Bandar was also listed as attending his audience with King Abdullah.

Although the kingdom's main obsession is Iran, its immediate pre-occupation is Syria. On that issue, Bandar may indeed be the man for the moment. Over the years, he has acquired a reputation for discreet diplomacy and intrigue in both Syria and Lebanon. According to a source close to the ruling family, King Abdullah regards Bandar, who bad-mouthed the then crown prince during his tenure as ambassador to the United States, with caution. At one point, Abdullah went so far as to take Bandar to the side and tell him: "I know you do not represent me in Washington."

But Abdullah still recognizes Bandar's talents. Although Abdullah is often depicted as a Syriaphile, the monarch changed his attitude, especially after the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad castigated his fellow Arab leaders as "half-men" for their failure to support Hezbollah.

Another more recent example of Saudi willingness to play in Syrian politics was the welcome that Bashar's uncle, Rifaat, received in Riyadh when coming to pay his respects last month after Nayef's death. Rifaat has lived in Paris since 1984, having tried and failed to stage a coup after President Hafez al-Assad, his brother and Bashar's father, fell ill. Rifaat is related to King Abdullah by marriage -- one of Rifaat's wives was a sister of one of Abdullah's wives, the mother of deputy foreign minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah. The closeness between Rifaat and Abdullah is more than just kinship: They worked together in the early 1980s when Rifaat was leading the Defense Companies, Syria's praetorian guard, and Abdullah was commander of the Saudi Arabian national guard.

However the kingdom may be adjusting its Syria policy, there is no denying that the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the Saudi CIA, is badly in need of a shakeup. Its recent record is, to say the least, mixed: Shortly before the 9/11 attacks, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the kingdom's chief interlocutor with the then Taliban regime in Afghanistan, "was relieved of the post at his [own] request." In Ghost Wars, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the CIA and Osama bin Laden, Steve Coll wrote: "Turki's vast personal riches . . . bothered some of his rivals in the royal family. They felt the Saudi intelligence department had become a financial black hole. . . . Turki's rivals clamored for accountability at the [General Intelligence Department]."

Both Muqrin and Nawaf, the men who served as Saudi intelligence chiefs between Turki and Bandar, lacked flair. Muqrin, who has now been shunted into an undefined advisory role, trained as a fighter pilot, like Bandar. But his primary credential for the job was that he was loyal to King Abdullah. His other qualification was that, like the king, he was not a Sudairi -- the largest group of seven full brothers who have dominated Saudi royal politics for decades and still do, despite the passing of three of them. Nawaf, who took over from Turki, was even more of an Abdullah yes-man. The fiction that he was leading Saudi foreign intelligence was unsustainable after he suffered a stroke during the 2002 Beirut Arab summit. He is still alive, but confined to a wheelchair.

Even if Bandar has regained some of his previous form, the troubles of the Middle East, from a Saudi perspective, are surely more than can be handled by one man. In Syria, Riyadh wants Bashar out but does not want the contagion to spread to Jordan. To Riyadh's fury, it also finds itself competing for influence in Syria with tiny Qatar, which appears to be just as generous with money and weapons but much far more nimble in responding to events on the ground. Meanwhile, Iran looms over the horizon, gaining in nuclear potential while also, from the kingdom's perspective, fanning the flames of Shiite Muslim discontent in Bahrain and even at home, in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Recent clashes between Saudi Shiites and security forces following the arrest of firebrand Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr (literally: Tiger, the Tiger), resulted in the deaths of several protesters and the injury of dozens more.

Bandar's appointment suggests another weakness in Riyadh: King Abdullah, it appears, cannot identify or perhaps trust any other talent within the House of Saud for such a role. Bandar was born on the wrong side of the blanket -- his mother was a Sudanese concubine -- so has no claim as a future king. But what of the senior princes, who should be showing a flair for leadership at this critical juncture? Crown Prince Salman, the defense minister, and Prince Ahmed, the new interior minister, do not appear to inspire confidence.

The next generation, of which Bandar is a member, includes deputy defense minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan and national guard commander Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, as well as Eastern Province governor Prince Muhammed bin Fahd and assistant interior minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. With Saudi Arabia's most senior princes dying off, it's time for this generation to step into a leadership role if the kingdom hopes to avoid a messy succession crisis in the near future -- or at least that is probably what these men, spring chickens in Saudi royal terms but already in their fifties and sixties, think.

But for some reason, King Abdullah has chosen Bandar for a role that, without too much hyperbole, might be described as saving the kingdom. It's an interesting choice.



Africanistan? Not Exactly

The dangers of international intervention in Mali.

While the Islamist rebels and their terrorist allies who currently control much of northern Mali have been making themselves internationally famous -- most recently by flogging other Muslims for straying from their version of the sharia law and destroying tombs in ancient Timbuktu -- diplomatic rumbling about outside intervention in the crippled West African nation has been getting louder by the day.

France's new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, recently predicted that "there will probably be the use of force" to bring northern Mali back under control while African Union (AU) leaders are increasingly suggesting that intervention might be inevitable. ECOWAS -- the West African community made up of most of Mali's neighbors -- has already drawn up a rough plan for military intervention, which the United States supports, at least in principle. By all appearances, they are waiting for a green light from the Malian government in Bamako and from the United Nations, which both are reluctant to give and which won't likely come during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It is always hard to know what exactly is going on in a region of the world that generates more rumors and conspiracy theories than the Texas school book depository, but now more than ever false analogies and shallow analyses seem to be driving the debate.

Everyone is agreed on one thing: The mess in Mali is stagnating. At the beginning of the year, Tuareg rebels in the Sahara took up arms against the central government, which refused to put up much of a fight. In March, angry soldiers chased President Amadou Toumani Touré from power, but the coup leaders soon faced a wall of opposition from Mali's politicians, neighbors, and foreign partners. They quickly ceded power to civilians, at least officially, but after a near-fatal attack on interim President Dioncounda Traore in March, the new government has been unable to impose its authority.

Meanwhile in the north, a loose alliance of Tuareg separatists and Islamist fighters chased what remained of the Malian army from two-thirds of the national territory, but soon fell out and turned on each other. All this fighting has produced hundreds of thousands of refugees and has left well-armed Islamists in control of the major cities of the northern and eastern regions of this vast, arid country. Now the country faces a plague of locusts, which will add a biblical undertone to a crushing humanitarian crisis.

The meme of the month in diplomatic circles is that Mali is well on its way to becoming the next Afghanistan. Lately, the president of neighboring Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, his Beninois counterpart Boni Yayi (who also chairs the AU), and other West African and foreign diplomats have echoed each other in playing the "Africanistan" card. But how well does that analogy actually hold up?

Drugs, guns, pseudo-Islamic vigilantism: It's true that all those ingredients are present in northern Mali, and that they make for a toxic mix. It's also true that there are direct links between northern Mali and Southwest Asia, albeit thin ones: Tuareg Islamist leader Iyad ag-Ghali, leader of the Ansar Dine group controlling Timbuktu, contracted his Salafism in the late 1990s, when Pakistani "missionaries" were regular visitors in northern Mali. It made him an exception then, even if his particular brand of Islamism has become more common in the years since. Still, Islam as practiced in northern and southern Mali alike mostly remains a deep-rooted, accommodating and tolerant tradition. And Tuaregs -- a minority in both north and south -- generally maintain more equitable gender relations than other groups in the region.

Ag-Ghali, on the other hand, has attempted to impose a crude vigilante version of sharia that -- judging by courageous street protests in Gao and Kidal, and by the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled it -- has little popular support in northern Mali. Some outside observers have compared Ansar Dine's attacks on the Timbuktu shrines to the Taliban's 2001 destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. But those were Buddhas without Buddhists, and the loudest protests came from the international community, not Afghans themselves. The mosques, mausoleums, and rare Arabic manuscripts of Timbuktu, on the other hand, represent a tradition that the city's residents are proud of and which many recognize as an important resource, drawing state support, international assistance, and -- in better days -- a vibrant tourism industry.

If anything makes Mali like Afghanistan, it's the drug trade, which Ag-Ghali and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) control. Over the last several years, Mali, like Guinea Bissau and Guinea, has become a major node in the smuggling networks that bring Latin American cocaine to Europe. But the similarities here too are pretty superficial. The drugs are not produced in Mali; they only transit through it. As French political scientist Jean-François Bayart has argued, that makes Mali a lot more like Mexico than Afghanistan. The drug trade does not have a positive impact on the life of the average person in northern Mali, who has no access to its benefits. To the contrary, it brings gangsters, ad hoc airstrips, and the burnt-out fuselages of abandoned Boeings. The growth of drug smuggling -- and hostage-taking, another big business -- also makes it harder for many northerners to earn a living: no tourism, no development projects, and presumably no possibility of smuggling cigarettes, cars, and people as easily as one could do before the rebellion. But above all, unlike Afghanistan, Mali has no poppy farmers, and thus the drug lords have no popular support.

Of course, the reason West Africans and others make the Afghan comparison is to sound the alarm over an emerging Islamist safe haven in the Sahara that could be used as a launching pad for international attacks. Neighboring countries have already suffered from terrorist attacks -- and AQIM has made clear that France is its primary target. The Saharan debacle is serious stuff, no doubt, and it has implications well beyond the boundaries of the countries that share the desert. But here's one Mali-Afghanistan comparison that does work: It represents a golden opportunity for outsiders to turn a nasty mess into a complete disaster.

We might do better to think about what Mali actually is than to think about what it might be like. We might also want to think about the interventions that have already occurred in the region, and what they wrought, before championing new ones. External forces went a long way toward creating the current mess in the Sahara. By pushing well-armed Tuareg fighters -- including high-ranking officers in Muammar al-Qaddafi's army -- out of Libya, NATO's 2011 bombing campaign accelerated a brewing rebellion in the north, one that began in January before being hijacked by Islamists over the last few months.

Although Tuareg separatism has deep local roots, outside meddling also helped catalyze this year's rebellion. American insistence over the last several years that the Malian military re-establish a presence in the Sahara fit the logic of U.S. counterterrorism programs, but it went against the spirit of the 2006 Algiers accords between Bamako and an earlier generation of Tuareg rebels. Those accords had mandated a diminished presence of state security forces in the desert, and the violation of them became one of the MNLA's signature grievances. Other outside interventions may have been more direct. Many in Mali and elsewhere believe that in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, French President Nicolas Sarkozy at least tacitly supported the MNLA in the hope that they could win the release of French hostages held by AQIM in the desert. Evidence for this is mostly circumstantial, and if that was the plan, it didn't work out so well. Still, it might help explain why, after Sarkozy's defeat, MNLA spokesmen went out of their way to thank him for his support and understanding.

Soon after Sarkozy left office, the MNLA was broke. Its fighters began to drift towards Ag-Ghali, and soon the secular nationalists were shaking hands with the Islamist Ansar Dine and talking about imposing sharia in the north. That accord had the lifespan of an ice cream cone in August -- the MNLA's diplomatic wing realized what a disaster it would be for the group's image, and people in Kidal wouldn't stand for it -- but it was telling nonetheless. The takeaway? The MNLA is hardly a horse you can bet on.

In spite of this history of unstable allegiances, some analysts persist in thinking that a proxy war in the desert -- in which outside powers like the U.S. would support the separatist MNLA against the Islamist Ansar Dine -- is a good idea. This is so foolish it makes the head spin. Tuareg separatists -- like the Islamists, or like the neighboring states of Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger -- will always be fighting their own war, not that of the Americans or anyone else.

The proxy war is like a bank shot in a game of pool played with snowballs. It won't work in the Sahara or anywhere else, and surely even the most gung-ho American interventionists do not want to be holding the bag when Tuareg fighters switch sides again to shake hand with the Islamists or otherwise refuse to play Washington's game. And now that France, under François Hollande, is no longer playing the role of the pyromaniac fireman in Mali, there is no reason for the United States to audition for it.

So what is to be done? Ultimately, Malians themselves will have to take the lead in resolving a crisis that has endangered their neighbors. Outside actors can only help all sides seek an honorable way to make the Malian north safe again, partly by working to get Bamako to accept the assistance of its neighbors. At the moment, foreign military intervention, whether it comes from ECOWAS or elsewhere, will be viewed as an invasion in both the south and the north. That has to change, which means that politics has to come first. A political solution will be harder to achieve than a military one, but you get what you pay for. The first step towards it will be finding legitimate and sensible interlocutors (sitting Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra is a possibility) while sidelining the hotheaded, the foolish, and the cynical whether they are in Mali, Niger ...  or Washington.