They are brothers-in-law who have known more secrets and embarked on more secret missions than anyone else in the world during the past quarter of a century. One is Saudi Arabia's outgoing ambassador to the United States, the other, his successor in Washington, who was head of Saudi intelligence for 24 years.
Prince Bandar Bin Sultan was a fighter pilot, then squadron commander in Dhahran when this reporter first met him in 1971. The son of Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan Bin Abdel Aziz, and of one of his four wives, a Yemeni domestic servant who worked in his palace.
Bandar's air force contacts led him to the United States where his skills as an edge-of-your-seat raconteur, engaging, debonair and devil-may-care demeanor won him many friends in high places - and the ambassadorship of Saudi Arabia to the United States.
Bandar accumulated a multibillion dollar fortune during his 20-year Washington diplomatic reign. He was unfailingly helpful to US defense industries, always advising them on where to turn in Saudi Arabia for lucrative after-sales services. His legendary 55,000-square-foot mountaintop "Hala Ranch" domain outside Aspen, Colo., includes a replica of a British pub where he regales his unfailingly famous guests from behind the bar. It has 19 bathrooms and is larger than the White House. Elaborate security makes the 200-acre perimeter impregnable.
Bandar and his wife, Princess Haifa, the late King Faisal's daughter, are seldom in Washington where his vast 9-acre compound on Chain Bridge Road, overlooks the Potomac. It contains one 26-room house for staff and the main residence with 15 bedrooms. A country mansion and the entire village of Glympton ($90 million, including renovations) near London, a palace in Morocco, a palace in Riyadh and a palace-cum-beach house in Jeddah are some of his other homes.
The man of hundreds of secret missions for Saudi royals, Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush, is also a member of the Saudi cabinet, a position he did not resign when he packed it in as ambassador to the United States. Bandar knows his country's absolute monarchy has to change - or perish in some unpredictable national or regional upheaval with dire consequences for the U.S. relationship and oil supplies. And rumor has it he wants to be close to the throne when and if the evolution he seeks toward a constitutional monarchy takes place.
Crown Prince Abdullah (now king. ed) has been running the kingdom for almost 10 years. He is, like King Fahd was, an octogenarian, 82, and when he goes, Sultan, Bandar's father, also ailing, is in line to succeed him. That is when the succession stakes becomes interesting for Bandar. If the 7,000-male-prince family (and 23,000 wives and children) decides it wants a man who knows anyone-who's-anyone in the Who's Who in the World, Bandar is a good outsider's long shot.
From Aspen, when a cabinet meeting is called, he hops on his G5 down to Colorado Springs and from there non-stop to Riyadh for 17 hours in his private Airbus. He has jetted all over the world to facilitate the Reagan-Gorbachev entente; talked his father, the defense minister, into secret transfers of funds and arms to the Nicaraguan resistance fighting the Sandinista Marxist regime at a time when any further U.S. aid had been vetoed in Congress by six different "Boland Amendments;" convinced Libya's mercurial Col. Muammar Qadhafi to fess up to the bombing of PanAm 103; and arranged for the exit of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his defeated Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon in 1983.
CIA headquarters is a five-minute drive from Bandar's McLean, Va., spread on the Potomac and George Tenet when he was director of Central Intelligence, would drop in on Bandar on Friday evenings for a chat and a drink and the latest gossip in high places.
Bandar's successor as ambassador is Prince Turki Bin Faisal, the ambassador in London for the past three years, who was head of Saudi intelligence for 24 years before that. If Bandar is Saudi Arabia's James Bond, Turki is the kingdom's George Smiley (of John Le Carre fame).
Soft-spoken, Turki was coached in the art of being a spy master by France's legendary spy chief Count Alexandre de Marenches, a fierce anti-Communist who plotted the demise of the Soviet empire with Ronald Reagan Dec. 16, 1980, four weeks before Reagan was sworn in as president. For 11 years, Marenches, who had an American mother and, unlike most Frenchmen, loved the United States, ran scores of covert operations against the Soviet Union before resigning when the newly elected President Francois Mitterrand put four communist ministers in his first Cabinet.
Turki worked closely with Marenches and the CIA. His big moment came on December 27, 1979, when the Red Army rolled into Afghanistan. His agency matched the $600 million a year the CIA poured into Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency that was training and equipping thousands of mujahideen guerrilla fighters to fight the Soviet occupation.
One of Turki's assets was Osama Bin Laden, one of the 56 children of a Yemeni-born construction tycoon who had a monopoly on all royal palaces built in the kingdom. Bin Laden collected tens of millions from wealthy Saudis for the Afghan campaign. He also took under his wing all the Arab and other Muslim volunteers who had been encouraged to fight in Afghanistan by Turki in his contacts with other Arab intelligence chiefs.
By the time the defeated Soviets slunk out of Afghanistan in February 1989, Bin Laden had been elevated to hero status in Saudi Arabia. So when Bin Laden asked to see Turki on August 2, 1990, the day Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq, he was not kept waiting. What followed was described by Turki as one of history's most expensive laughs. Bin Laden told Turki he knew the royals were thinking of inviting the US Army to the kingdom to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait, but that this was not necessary as Bin Laden's "Afghan Arab" fighters could do the job. Turki laughed and a furious Bin Laden stormed out of his office.
That was a crucial turning point in the history of the world. Bin Laden concluded the royal family was conspiring with Washington to facilitate the occupation of Saudi Arabia and the control of its oil-production facilities. Bin Laden also became convinced Saddam had been entrapped into invading Kuwait to provide a pretext for US occupation. That was when he decided to take on the royal family - and later became the world's most-wanted terrorist.
Turki produced the biggest, as yet unsolved, mystery when he resigned as intelligence chief after a quarter of a century at the helm - just three weeks before the September 11, 2001 attacks. He says it was a sheer coincidence. Many Arabs, to the conspiracy theory born, believe Turki knew something very big was in the works and that some Saudis were involved. He didn't know what or where. But he decided to get out of the way lest he be blamed. Again, Turki laughs. He explained 24 years was a very long time to be in the same demanding job and he needed time to smell the desert. That didn't last very long before he accepted the job as ambassador to the Court of St. James. He has many friends in the United States and will be a welcome change after Bandar.