- The King’s Messenger: Prince Bandar Bin Sultan and America’s Tangled Relationship with Saudi Arabia
Biographical books that project an authentic, unbiased view of public persons are extremely difficult to create and rare to come by. This is particularly so when the subjects are still living persons, and for whom distinct public personas have been created by the subjects themselves, by critics, and/or by the mass media that are often taken at face value by well wishers and critics alike. The book under review is one of those rare exceptions. David Ottaway does a superb job of combining thoroughness in research, skepticism at taking first-hand information at face value, and at having a nose for a good story. The result is as authentic an account of the man behind the persona, Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, and of his real contributions to bilateral Saudi-US relations, as one is likely to find.
After a brief prologue and a chapter presenting the author’s conceptual framework for the evolution of US-Saudi relations entitled “Oil, Arms and Allah,” the book covers Bandar’s career starting in 1978 as an ad hoc novice diplomat helping to lobby in the United States for the sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia, moving on to his career as Saudi Ambassador beginning in 1982, and ending with his abrupt departure from Washington in 2005 without the concurrence of his father, Sultan bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz or his uncle, King Fahd bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, both of whom had insisted that he stay on as Saudi Ambassador in Washington. It concludes [End Page 153] with President George W. Bush’s visit to the Kingdom in January 2008 in which, as the author, noted that Prince Bandar was not included in the Saudi officials with whom he met.
There is no doubt that during his tenure as Saudi Ambassador, Prince Bandar was one of the most effective ambassadors to the United States of his time, combining personal charm, hubris, and a gift of gab with the ability for political spin that could rival Karl Rove on his best day. What Ottaway adds to the story is that behind the glamorous fighter pilot persona Bandar liked to project was a highly intelligent, hard working diplomat, an astute observer of human nature, and an important player in the fields of international politics, economics, and security.
Despite his seeming indefatigable energy, however, he was also human. By the time he packed up and left his Washington home after 22 years as Saudi Ambassador, he was physically and emotionally burned out. He had realized this for several years and sought to resign, but stayed on as required by his father and uncle. Few persons could have kept up such a pace for a quarter of that time.
There are a few points in the narrative that this reviewer believes are not entirely accurate, but as they do not substantively detract from the portrayal of Prince Bandar, they do not merit mentioning here. Factual accuracy does not necessarily equate to the level of authenticity with which the author portrays Prince Bandar as “the King’s Messenger.”
On a personal note, however, there is one inaccuracy that could be mentioned, precisely because it expands on an element noted in the book: that a major contributor to the success of the extensive role Bandar played in Washington for his country was his exceptionally close personal relationship with his uncle, Crown Prince and later King Fahd.
To emphasize that point, Ottaway relates a story the reviewer once told him about being taken by the then US Ambassador, Governor John West, to be introduced to the then Crown Prince Fahd. West did so because he knew how closely Fahd was following Bandar’s graduate program at Johns Hopkins University that I was administering at West’s behest. But the anecdote got twisted around to imply that Fahd’s response to the introduction focused on the importance he...