The first time I met Prince Bander bin Sultan was in 1982 at the Naval Amphibious Base in Norfolk, Virginia. He was the Saudi defense attaché and was visiting some Saudi Navy ships before sailing to Saudi Arabia.
I met him two more times and it was very hard not to admire him.
He was born in Taif on March 2, 1949. In 1968 he graduated from the British Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, England. He had flown numerous fighter aircraft for the Royal Saudi Air Force.
He attended many postgraduate schools in the United States during his 17-year career. He took courses at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, and at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at Fort McNair in the Washington D.C. area.
Later on, he received a Master’s degree from John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C. in 1980.
Prince Bander started to become a politician while wearing the air force uniform when carrying out special assignments during the debates between the US administration and Congress concerning the sale of F-15s in 1978 and AWACs in 1980 to Saudi Arabia.
In 1982 he was assigned to Washington D.C. as the Kingdom’s defense attaché. About one year later he was appointed the Saudi ambassador to Washington and presented his credentials to President Ronald Reagan on October 24, 1983.
In a very short time he became the dean of the diplomatic corps. His talent as a diplomat, his discipline as a former military man, his style, his sense of humor, his straight arrow approach to matters and unaccented English gave him an edge in the political field.
On one occasion I heard his name being mentioned even though he had nothing to do with the event in question.
It was during a visit by Irish Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams to the US in December 2001. So, what does the Irish politician has to do with Prince Bander? I heard the answer from an Irish politician who I met in Dubai many years later.
During the time Prince Bander was in Washington, he had more TV interviews than any other ambassador. And he used his talent as speaker to catch the ear of American audiences from every political party. His English was very clear and unaccented.
A short time later Adams was in the US to resolve some political issues and to gauge the US reaction to the IRA’s decision to stop its violent activities.
Sinn Fein needed the American public to listen to them. During one of Adams’ TV interviews, many in the audience had difficulty understanding the Irishman even though his native language is English. If memory serves me right, some of his speeches were subtitled because many Americans and other audiences couldn’t understand his Irish accent.
On the same US trip he announced his intention to visit Cuba. This decision wasn’t welcomed in America, England and Ireland.
Years later when I met the Irish diplomat in Dubai, he said many observers wished they could have had Prince Bander as the US media spokesman because of his English language capability and his public relations skills.
And, the diplomat added, it was embarrassing to see a Saudi prince being understood by the American audience in comparison to Adams, whose mother tongue wasn’t understood.
He also said he wished Adams had Prince Bandar’s experience in how to manage the Washington political minefield and avoid the Cuba fiasco.
Prince Bander had solved many issues and was able to do it in a very smooth way.
One of the most challenging issues was the Lockerbie incident. He gave guarantees at the time to the Libyan people and leadership that the country’s integrity would not be harmed regardless of the outcome of the mediation efforts. Many Libyan officials didn’t believe Prince Bander could deliver, but he did. And with the efforts of Saudi Arabia and South Africa, the Libyan people were freed from the agony of the incident.
Now Prince Bander has been appointed by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah as the new Saudi intelligence chief. With this appointment, the Saudi government will force many of the so-called expert analysts in Saudi affairs to re-examine their earlier analyses of Prince Bander.
We heard many reports and questions from the outside. Can any Saudi prince take a break from the work routine? Why can’t a royal take some time off to be with his family and children?
We saw some very popular papers in Europe ask the question: Where is Bander?
All they had to do is watch Saudi TV and they would see Prince Bander among other royals and officials chatting with each other when receiving the king.
If we Saudis can see him, then why can’t the Western think tanks see him? Prince Bander was never out of the Saudi political picture; isn’t he the new Saudi intelligence chief?