Did King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia narrowly avoid being overthrown by a close member of his own royal family? That seems to be a rumour circulating around some political and intelligence circles in Washington as well as in the Middle East. A Saudi official however denied the allegations saying it was most likely Iranian disinformation.
Indeed, there have been reports ¬- all unconfirmed -¬ that Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdel Aziz, a nephew of the king and former Saudi ambassador to Washington had attempted a coup and has since been under house arrest. Other sources said Bandar was detained in a Saudi prison. A Saudi official however told this reporter that the whole story was part of an Iranian disinformation campaign.
“Utter nonsense” was how the official described the whole affair, adding that this was an ongoing struggle by Iran to discredit the Saudis and perturb efforts to reconcile Saudi Arabia and Syria, a move that would undoubtedly be to the detriment of the Iranian-Syrian love affair.
Of course no one will go on the record to confirm or deny any of the allegations brought forward in this new Middle East muddle. Yet a number of tidbits are beginning to emerge allowing one to piece together a large jigsaw puzzle with many pieces still missing.
One of the main components is the whereabouts of Prince Bandar. The former ambassador and head of the Saudi National Security Council has not been seen in public for many months. According to a Saudi official, however, Bandar is spending time on his ranch in Colorado.
Yet what makes this story interesting are a number of strangely timed coincidences. In the dark world of espionage and intelligence gathering there is no such thing as a coincidence. Things usually happen for a good reason.
The first item that deserves special attention is the sudden rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Why is that unusual? Because the two countries are as far apart as one can possibly imagine from every aspect of the political and social-economic field; and not too long ago it looked as though they were about to come to blows.
This past week King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia made an official visit to Lebanon. This could have never happened had there not been a thawing between Syria and Saudi. Prior to his visit to Beirut the Saudi king was in Morocco where he conferred with the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Last year the mood changed between Damascus and Riyadh quite suddenly. The
Lebanese press dubbed this change in Syrian-Saudi relations as the “Seen-Seen” agreement for the way the letter “S” is pronounced in Arabic.
What followed was a summit meeting between King Abdullah and President Bashar Assad of Syria. Sources in Beirut say the move came at the initiative of the Saudis who wanted better relations with the Syrians and wanted to defuse some of the tension that persisted in the region.
The Syrian and the Lebanese press were filled with reports of all the positive steps the two Arab leaders had agreed to take but neither the Syrian nor the Saudi press alluded to the real deal that was reached by the two leaders at this meeting, according to reliable sources in Lebanon. In essence that was Syria’s “soft return to Lebanon” as one Lebanese official put it. A direct outcome of the Syrian-Saudi deal was the visit to Damascus by Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister and son of the assassinated leader.
Acting in the spirit of this rapprochement Syria passed on to Saudi Arabia information that a member of the royal family was planning a coup d’état. The intelligence, it seems according to Middle East intelligence sources, came from Russian intelligence. And now, as they say, the plot thickens.
In his new role as head of the National Security Council Prince Bandar had made a number of visits to Moscow to negotiate arms deals for Riyadh. Is that the Russian connection, if there is indeed one?
Furthermore, as a sign of goodwill Syria told the Saudis that they would intervene in Yemen with the Houthi rebels fighting along the Saudi border. In return Syria asked the Saudis who have great influence with Hariri to use this influence to convince the Lebanese prime minister that it was in his interest to recognise the importance of Damascus. In return Syria needed to distance itself from accusations that it was responsible for the killing of Rafik Hariri.
Before that could happen, another suspect had to be found: Enter Israel onto the scene.
As was reported July 26, some 70 people in Lebanon were arrested for spying for Israel in recent months, including three officials of Alpha, a state-owned cellular phone company. Cellular communications transmitted through Alpha played a vital role in the investigation of Hariri’s murder. The three men admitted to have spied for Israel.
In short, Saudi-Syrian relations are amended; Beirut is made to understand that there can be no circumventing Damascus; Syria is absolved of any implications in the killing of the former Lebanese prime minster with the blame now resting on the traditional enemy, Israel.
Very convenient, but is that the truth? We may never know.
Yet in this great muddle of spies, lies and broken alliances there may be a glitter of hope if the Seen-Seen deal (the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement) gives way to distancing Tehran from Damascus and lays the groundwork to allow Syria to move closer to the West.
Could this be the reason why Iran might be trying to discredit the Saudis? This is one more unanswered question in the parallel war of disinformation.
Claude Salhani is a political analyst specializing in the Middle East and terrorism.
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