Prince Khaled Bin Bandar Bin Abdul Aziz, center, was appointed Tuesday as Saudi Arabia's spy chief after the king sacked him as the deputy defense minister on Saturday. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)
DUBAI — Saudi Arabia’s appointment of its deputy defense minister as the new intelligence chief on Tuesday — days after sacking him — and the appointment of former spy chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan as a special envoy marks a return to hardliner politics by the kingdom as militants approach its borders.
On Sunday, Prince Khaled bin Bandar bin Abdul Aziz was unexpectedly removed from his position after only 45 days on the job by King Abdullah at the request of the defense minister, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz.
No reason was given for his sacking as deputy defense minister, but early Tuesday the SPA state news agency said that Prince Khaled had been appointed “head of the General Intelligence with a minister rank” by royal decree.
“Nothing focuses the mind like having al-Qaeda [or the functional equivalent] on your borders,” said David Weinberg, senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“The crisis in Iraq is a stark reminder for Saudi authorities they live in a rough neighborhood that is only getting rougher,” he said. “If Riyadh was indeed going through a dovish mood of late, it will be sorely tested now that Syria’s civil war is metastasizing through Iraq in their direction.”
Saudi Arabia’s reshuffling of its top military leadership in which hardliners are being replaced by moderates in May was the latest in a string of changes in the kingdom’s defense posture.
Following the April 15 removal of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the powerful intel chief, the kingdom staged a massive military exercise called Abdullah’s Sword and featured ballistic missiles on April 29. In early May, the Kingdom announced a major reshuffle in defense leadership, appointing Prince Khaled bin Bandar as the deputy defense minister.
Prince Khaled graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was a lieutenant general and commander of the Royal Saudi Land Forces.
A key component of the new position is closeness in ties with Saudi Arabia’s main nuclear ally Pakistan. Prince Khaled was decorated by Pakistani President Asif Zardari with the military crescent medal that is awarded in Pakistan to distinctive foreign military personalities signifying his relationship with the Pakistani military establishment.
The former spy chief, Prince Bandar, was named “adviser to the king and his special envoy” on Tuesday after rumors surfaced in Saudi press that he has been in charge of the Qatari file during the period of change.
“Rumors Prince Bandar is now in charge of the Qatari file still for the time being seem to be just that: rumors,” Weinberg said. “However, putting somebody in charge of dealing with Doha who reportedly bashed the al-Thani regime as 300 people with a TV station would not be a particularly conciliatory action by the Saudis. On the other hand, King Abdullah and Emir Tamim apparently just exchanged a warm message and a phone call this week, so counter-intuitively perhaps, things are actually getting better between Doha and Riyadh.”
Weinberg asserted that the only lasting takeaway from Saudi Arabia’s musical chairs in May is that the king has been successfully using a series of staff shakeups to put his sons in increasingly important positions.
“Any shift in a so-called moderate direction may now be being erased. Yet King Abdullah’s son is still sitting pretty as the new governor of Riyadh,” he said.
The latest staff shakeup is bad news for Saudi Arabia’s defense sector, Weinberg said.
“At a time when neighbors like Abu Dhabi are making great strides comparatively in defense, Crown Prince Salman can only implement so much actual defense policy himself, so this leaves a empty a position that in essence is more of an acting defense minister than it is a deputy position.”
“Saudi Arabia has been through deputy defense ministers in the last two years and clearly Prince Bandar never really went anywhere in the first place.”