Founded by Abd al-Aziz in 1932, modern Saudi Arabia is an oligarchy of 7,000 male princes. The royals number an estimated 21,000 (including up to 4 wives allowed by the Koran). King Abdullah, who succeeded the late King Fahd in August 2005, is the fifth son of the founder to mount the throne as the guardian of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.
First among royals are known as the "Sudairi Seven," which comprised seven brothers with the same mother, who was the founder's favorite wife, Al-Fadha bint Asi al-Shuraim. Surviving Sudairis are in their late seventies and include next in line to mount the throne Prince Sultan, the defense minister, who is the father of Prince Bandar, the national security adviser to the king and former ambassador to the U.S. He is known to see himself as a future kingmaker. His unique global Rolodex of the planet's powers that be also puts him in a stable of dark horses.
Interlocking royal blood relationships give over 100 princes and one princess commanding positions throughout the government, armed forces and National Guard. Only finance and petroleum are under non-royal technocrats, a safeguard against any one royal acquiring control of the kingdom's income stream.
After Sultan, who recently recovered from stomach cancer, the most popular royal, Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, now the governor of Riyadh, may become king. But younger princes are growing restless, some Iraq-weary of the post-World War II alliance with the U.S., others impatient with the slow pace of political reform, and still others against reform.
Like the 15th century House of Medici, the House of Saud brought renaissance to a medieval Arabian peninsula. But like the Medicis, it weaves a tale of intrigue that spins tangled passions, ambition, treachery and revenge. More opaque than the Iron Curtain of Cold War shame, a sand curtain shields Saudi Arabia's ruling family from the prying eyes and ears of foreign intelligence. Until very recently, that is.
Two days after hosting a dinner at his residence attended by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, CIA Director Michael Hayden and White House consigliere on terrorism Fran Townsend, at which he praised the present warm state of Saudi-U.S. relations, Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal, the son of the late king Faisal, assassinated in 1975, abruptly resigned. He had been on the job only 16 months, and much of that time visiting 37 states.
As the former head of Saudi intelligence for a quarter of a century, who suddenly resigned two weeks before 9/11, Turki's abrupt exit from Washington, without the usual round of diplomatic farewells, was bound to send the rumor mill into overdrive. Which is precisely what Turki intended. It was a tale of two channels.
In his private talks with U.S. national security officials, journalists and other foreign diplomats, Turki had been advising the U.S. to engage in direct talks with Iran, which is the kingdom's principal rival for influence in the oil-rich Gulf. "We talk to Iran all the time," Turki told this reporter, "why can't you?"
The man who ran the $600 million a year Saudi operation to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s was convinced the recommendation by the Baker-Hamilton Commission report to talk to Tehran was the only way to persuade the mullahocracy to forgo their nuclear weapons option.
But other, currently more influential, voices among the Saudi royals, were truculently bellicose. Proselytized by Prince Bandar, the kingdom's national security chief, and Turki's predecessor in Washington for a record-setting 22 years, king Abdullah, Defense Minister Sultan, and Interior Minister Naif bin Abd al-Aziz, also a Sudairi Seven, had become convinced that nothing short of military action would deter Iran from becoming the world's 10th nuclear power.
There is a growing convergence of opinion among the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt that only an aerial bombardment of 17 known nuclear sites could retard Iran's nuclear ambitions by five to 10 years. One U.S. intel topsider remarked (not for attribution), "If we can gain five years that way, it's worth considering." He speculated Iran's moderate reformers could gain power in the interim,
Royal hawks remembered how Iranian pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) agitators had joined the annual pilgrimage to Mecca to stir up the masses of worshippers and provoke a coup against the ruling Saudi family. In the early 1980s, several hundred were killed in clashes with Saudi law enforcement.
The Saudis can also see Iran becoming the big winner in the wake of a U.S. disaster in Iraq. And unless the U.S. ceased pampering Iraq's Shiites at the expense of the Sunnis, or precipitously withdrew from Iraq, the kingdom would have to openly side with the Sunni insurgency, supplying both arms and funding to Iraq's Sunni minority. This, in turn, could agitate Saudi minority Shiites that live and work in the eastern oil fields.
Since Turki became ambassador, Bandar made several secret trips to the U.S., ostensibly to visit his palatial Aspen mansion (56,000 square feet, larger than the White House, set on its own mountain top of 95 acres, that includes 15 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms with 24-karat gold fixtures, now listed for sale at $135 million). But Bandar had permission to land at Andrews Air Force base outside Washington, ostensibly for refueling, which allowed him to move incognito to Camp David for meetings with National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley. Bandar also met with NSC Middle East Director Elliott Abrams, a prominent neocon. Turki believes he was kept in the dark about a number of important meetings on his own turf, as it were.
Turki was also angered that his own king had asked Vice President Dick Cheney to meet with him at short notice in Riyadh, but Turki was not invited to attend, an unusual omission as such summit meetings go. Bandar, not the ailing and longest serving Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Feisal, 75, who is Turki's brother, wrote the post-summit briefing for Turki.
Last month, Bandar also met secretly with Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian national security and intelligence chiefs in Sharm El Sheikh at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. His American, Israeli and Arab interlocutors share his alarm over Iran's nuclear ambitions and believe preemptive air strikes will become necessary in 2007. A new existential alliance appears to be in gestation against Iran's nuclear program.
Since the 1973-74 oil embargo and skyrocketing oil prices, the Saudi-led, six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the latest defense hardware from the U.S., U.K. and France. Saudi Arabia alone, with a population of 21 million and oil revenue of $500 million a day, bought $268.6 billion worth of armaments since 1990, proportionally more than India or China, each with populations of more than one billion, writes Youssef Ibrahim, a prominent Arab American journalist.
But the "Gulfies" know they're no match for the Iranian military with eight years of war fighting experience following Iraq's 1980 invasion. A nuclear-tipped Iran, undeterred by the U.N. Security Council's slap-on-the-wrist sanctions vote, has alarmed all six countries, from Oman to Kuwait. They, too, are now planning a "peaceful" nuclear power program.
The GCC Arabs are also planning their largest ever joint exercise -- Peninsula Shield -- to test interoperability. By reinforcing their naval presence inside and outside the Gulf, the U.S., Britain, and Gulf navies keep demonstrating that the military option is very much on the table. A second U.S. carrier task force will be on station in early 2007. Gulf countries possess over half the world's oil reserves.
Conversely, Iran is honing its retaliatory capabilities. Several hundred Hamas operatives recently left Gaza for Iran for special training by Revolutionary Guards, according to Israeli intelligence. Iran has also re-equipped Hezbollah in Lebanon with thousands of missiles and rockets to replace those fired at Israeli targets for 34 days last summer.
Next on the Mideast's geopolitical menu: protracted sectarian warfare, a spike in oil prices, escalating to a Saudi-Iranian confrontation over the future of Iraq.