In an untypically abrasive speech, Saudi King Abdullah welcomed the ouster of Egypt's president Muhammad Morsi, stating: "Let the entire world know that the people and government of the Saudi kingdom stood and still stand today with our brothers in Egypt against terrorism, extremism, and sedition." However dramatic, this apparent shift from Riyadh's traditional accommodation of perceived enemies, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional affiliates, to a more daring foreign policy is too little too late to reverse the decline of its regional power. And nowhere was this weakness more starkly demonstrated than in Riyadh's botched Syrian intervention, led by its most celebrated diplomat—Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
A Broken Tradition of Cooptation
The foundations of Saudi foreign policy were laid under historical circumstances that were completely different from today's political situation. From the 1930s to the early 1950s, Western presence in the Middle East was quite strong with the region enjoying geopolitical homeostasis. The rise of radical regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, coupled with Moscow's growing involvement in the region, did not seem to threaten Riyadh's domestic and international stance, and the intensifying U.S.-Saudi relations, cemented by mutual commitment to combating communism, steered the kingdom through the region's periodic upheavals well into the late 1970s.
Saudi King Abdullah (l) meets with President Obama in Washington, June 29, 2010. Riyadh has been openly critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East and has sent unmistakable signals of its displeasure. Most Saudis worry that a vacillating and unserious commander-in-chief in Washington may leave them twisting in the region's political winds.
This self-assurance played a central role in the Saudi royal family's nonconfrontational approach and its preference for quiet diplomacy. Military weakness, equilibrium, and calming situations were seemingly the three pillars of Riyadh's foreign policy orientation. The royals ruled out asserting the kingdom as a military power and, thanks to oil wealth and religious significance, chose to make it a cornerstone of the regional balance of interests.
The Iranian revolution and subsequent regional developments, notably the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the recent Arab upheavals, undermined this delicate balance of interests and made Riyadh's accommodative policy increasingly untenable. Things came to a head during the 2011 Shiite uprising in Bahrain, which the Saudis feared might spread to their own territory. Having helped to quell the restiveness in the tiny neighboring kingdom, Abdullah enlisted the services of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former veteran ambassador to Washington, to take Saudi foreign policy in a more assertive direction.
The Prince of Sensitive Missions
Son of the late Saudi crown prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (d. 2011), Bandar began his political career in 1978 as King Khaled's personal envoy to Washington bypassing Ambassador Faisal al-Hegelan. He quickly impressed President Jimmy Carter by enlisting the support of Sen. James Abourezk (Democrat, S. Dakota) in the toss-up vote on the Panama Canal treaty, and his subtle diplomacy paved the way for Congress to pass the Saudi F-15 package shortly thereafter. In 1986, Bandar entered the limelight as a result of his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal and, four years later, played an instrumental role in convincing hesitant Saudi royals to invite U.S. troops into the kingdom to cope with the consequences of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Since then, he has served as a vital liaison between Washington and Riyadh. In 2005, upon the completion of Bandar's 22-year stint in Washington, King Abdullah appointed him to lead the country's National Security Council.
Bandar's advice was sought in large part due to the mounting evidence that implicated Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, Riyadh's ally in Beirut. Following the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and the latter's crippling of the Fouad Seniora government, Bandar convinced Abdullah to invest in creating a Sunni militia to operate under the command of Hariri's son Saad. This fateful but ill-studied decision undermined Bandar's credibility when, in 2008, Hezbollah's militiamen stormed west Beirut and effortlessly dismantled Saad's militia in a matter of hours. Bandar had evidently failed to appreciate the strength of Hezbollah or the ineptitude of Hariri's leadership.
The Saudi royal family is seriously concerned about the turn of events in the region and the possibility of demands for political reform such changes might initiate. With more than two-thirds of its tribally and religiously heterogeneous population alien to the austere Wahhabi doctrine, there is very little in common between the Najd-originated ruling Wahhabi dynasty and its Shiite subjects in the oil-rich eastern province or Shafii and Maliki Sunni Muslims in Hijaz. Likewise, the kingdom's southern subjects mostly belong to Yemeni tribes where Shiite Ismailis and Zaydis proliferate.
Nevertheless, this failure did not deter Abdullah from calling on Bandar again in July 2012 to head the Saudi intelligence apparatus. The Saudi king had already become disturbed about the course of events in Syria and Bashar Assad's refusal to leave office. He may have thought that Bandar, who knew how to deal with Saddam Hussein, could work some magic with Bashar. In turn, mindful of Bandar's deep unease with regional Shiite ascendancy, Tehran's state-controlled media dubbed him the "prince of terrorists."
President George W. Bush meets with Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan (r), at the Bush ranch, August 27, 2002, in Crawford, Texas. Many Americans noted at the time the seeming supplicant position of their president. In 2005, King Abdullah appointed Bandar to lead the Saudi national security council.
U.S. Indifference and the Iranian Surge
For years, the Saudis sought to accommodate Iran and Syria to no avail. They even coerced Saad Hariri to swallow his pride and forgo the truth about his father's assassins, forcing him to announce that "he had made a mistake in blaming Syria for his father's killing." Yet Saudi concessions did not placate Tehran and Damascus for long: From the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, the mullahs in Tehran made the decision to prevent Assad's collapse and instructed their Lebanese proxy Hezbollah to commit troops as part of its collective effort to keep the regime in power.
For Riyadh, this behavior amounted to a confrontation that required a response. After more than two years of silence, the Saudis finally decided to take sides in Syria, only to realize that their support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) would be matched by Tehran's bolstering of Assad's military machine.
Even more dismaying to the Saudis was Washington's response—or lack thereof—to the situation. Given the supposed close relationship between the two countries, the fact that the Saudis did not have a clue about the administration's frame of mind on Syria was shocking though they were not the only ones to take President Obama's early warnings on the Syrian use of chemical weapons at face value. Exasperated by Washington's inaction, foreign minister Saud al-Faisal turned to the international community and implored it "to stop this aggression against the Syrian people."
The Saudis have every reason to feel disheartened, having failed to beat sense into Assad and to engage the Iranians diplomatically. And while Riyadh's defense agreements with Washington have not become completely irrelevant, most Saudis worry that a vacillating and unserious commander-in-chief in Washington may leave them twisting in the wind.
Bandar's Botched Syrian Policy
The Saudis believe that allowing Assad to stay in office will prolong the uprising and endanger their own stability. Given the weakness of the Free Syrian Army, the continuation of the armed conflict only serves to increase the presence of jihadists, notably al-Qaeda-affiliated groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Nusra. As long as such groups remain confined to northern Syria, the Saudis need not be overly concerned, but the prospect of these groups proliferating in southwest Syria close to the Jordanian border has begun to preoccupy them. Such an intrusion might mean that the eventual march of jihadists to the Saudi frontier is a foregone conclusion.
While born of the same Salafist ideology as the kingdom's own Wahhabist brand of Islam, these jihadist groups claim a purity of motive and a deadly modus operandi that endangers the House of Saud. Muhammad ibn Saud adopted Wahhabism in the mid-eighteenth century and sought to extend his rule throughout Arabia. His great-great-great-grandson ibn Saud allied himself with the Ikhwan Wahhabi army in 1911-27 to consolidate his reign in the current boundaries of Saudi Arabia. The Ikhwan's attempts to export its jihad to Iraq and Transjordan compelled ibn Saud to crush them in the battle of Siblah in March 1929. Whereas Saudi monarchs have been content with their territorial domain, today's jihadists in Syria aspire to rejuvenate the Ikhwan's original mission.
To combat the threat, King Abdullah again enlisted Bandar's services. The prince had not hidden his view that Bashar had to go because his inability to detect red lines in politics had made Assad injurious to himself, his country, and his Arab neighbors. As The Wall Street Journal put it, "CIA officials knew that KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] was serious about toppling Assad when the Saudi king named prince Bandar bin Sultan to lead the effort."
In an effort to convince Russia to drop its support of Assad, Bandar (r) reportedly offered President Vladimir Putin (l) a trade package comprising a $15 billion arms deal and a pledge to refrain from competing with Russia in the European gas market. But the offer also came with threats. Bandar is alleged to have said, "I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics … The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us."
In an effort to find a solution to the conflict, Bandar offered Russian president Vladimir Putin what looked like a lucrative trade package comprising a $15 billion arms deal and a pledge by the GCC to refrain from competing with Russia in the European gas market. This might have worked had Bandar dispensed with the stick that accompanied his carrot. Putin, who seems to consider himself Obama's sole rival in international politics, was infuriated when Bandar promised to rein in Chechen insurgents and prevent them from targeting the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia.
While Bandar has been described "as a pivotal figure in the struggle by America and its allies to tilt the battlefield balance against the regime in Syria," there is mounting evidence that Washington is not really looking to dislodge Assad. Despite past U.S. pronouncements that Assad "must go," there is a growing realization in Washington that the alternative to the Syrian despot might actually be worse with at least one account reporting that "the Americans informed the Russians that the Syrian regime must be present in any agreement to ensure smooth transition."
Thanks to Bandar's efforts, Riyadh did supply the Free Syrian Army with a few obsolete and ineffective shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles in June and at least fifty Russian-made Konkurs antitank missiles. But this is hardly enough to topple Assad, and there seems to be an inverse relationship between Riyadh's rhetoric and reality on the ground: The more the Saudis talk about arming the FSA, the more obvious it is that the Assad regime is still in control of the situation. In fairness to Bandar, his failure to alter the military balance on the ground in Syria has less to do with his ineptitude than with U.S. restrictions on arms supplies to the FSA: Saudi military aid to the Syrian rebels goes mostly through Jordan, which in turn requires CIA authorization for passing U.S.-made arms into Syria.
Given the course of events in Syria, it is highly unlikely that Bandar will prevail against Assad's regime or Iranian regional maneuverings. Damascus's promised cooperation with U.N. inspectors in dismantling its chemical weapons arsenal has won it rare praise from U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, deflecting previous criticisms and demands and giving the Assad regime a vital respite. An end to the Syrian conflict is not in sight, and the great-power agreement is unlikely to lead to an enhancement of Riyadh's status as a regional power. Bandar has failed in Syria, and the royal family is reportedly "dissatisfied with his performance there."
The Worst Is Yet to Come
Bandar is in desperate need of scoring a victory in Syria to obscure mounting internal problems in Riyadh, including the split over succession and the rise of pro-Muslim Brotherhood advocates in the kingdom such as Awad al-Qani and his as-Sahwa Current. Thus, recent reports of Bandar's meddling in Iraq's sectarian strife, if true, may indicate a desperate ploy to deflect criticism at home from his Syrian failings. But this feint is also doomed to failure as tilting the balance of power against the Assad regime is not contingent upon destabilizing Baghdad. If anything, it is likely to increase Iraqi Shiite involvement in the Syrian armed conflict against the opponents of the regime. No less alarming, the spread of violence in areas close to Saudi Arabia carries the risk of spillover into the desert kingdom.
Saudi influence on U.S. Middle East policy, especially on issues that directly affect the kingdom's interests, is quite limited and incommensurate with the volume of the two countries' bilateral, political, security, and economic interests. Washington perceives Riyadh as a quietist player dependent on U.S. power to ensure the kingdom's safety from external threats. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that Saudi requests to shape the formulation of certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy will be disregarded. Riyadh may dislike Iran's predominance in Iraq, but Tehran and Baghdad have found a modus vivendi since Saddam's toppling in 2003, and the Obama administration is unlikely to challenge this arrangement given its expressed goal of military disengagement and its recent opening to Tehran. The administration will simply not allow Riyadh to restrict its political options even when they conflict with the kingdom's own interests.
The Saudi royals at one point, especially since the recent Arab uprisings, thought that they could reassert themselves as a stabilizing regional power. But the truth of the matter is that they are actually part of the Arab strategic vacuum they hoped to be capable of redressing. Given Riyadh's seeming inherent inability to engage in meaningful political reform, promote social liberalization, and tolerate religious plurality, all it can possibly do is sit tight and hope that the regional status quo ante can be restored before too long.
Hilal Khashan is a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
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