Since 9/11, this reviewer has considered Saudi Arabia a terror-enabling dictatorship run by the several thousand "royal family" members, all male, who leak and reek oil wealth from their very souls. Even as Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's holiest site, Mecca, you read tawdry and sometimes lurid tales about these fabulously wealthy "royal" personages zipping about the world's playgrounds and doing things one imagines defy Islam's strict codes of personal behavior and devoutness. To offset their hypocrisy and apparent Islamic blasphemy, and perhaps to assuage the guilt of these Muslim shortfalls, the Saudi royal family sends countless scores or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars around the globe. Some of this money funds Islamic madrassas, which inculcate the strict Islamic values which so many in the Saudi royal family blithely ignore in their relentless booze and goom shows in the world's swank resorts, casinos, and brothels. Thus the Saudis have their oil-soaked cake and eat it too: Party! Party! -- combined with perhaps the somewhat undeserving glory and prestige of being "Guardians" of the Islamic faith.
For certain, a number of Saudi-funded madrassas preach the kind of lockminded ideology that convinces some Muslim men who are were not fortunate enough to be born into Saudi or other oil wealth to address their grievances not within their Muslim brotherhood, or specifically to question their wayward better-offs, but rather to rage against the world, and particularly the West, at large. Thus to draw attention away from their fantastic fun and goomin' games, the Saudis (and other oil-producing nations) have encouraged and financed a system which contributed to 9/11/01 and the ensuing complicated military and enforcement struggles presently underway and very undecided to this point.
Bin Sultan -- Globetrotting Freelance Diplomatic Fixer
The "Prince" of the book's title is Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's long-time ambassador (he recently left the post) to the United States, and globetrotting freelance diplomatic fixer. His story, written here by the Prince's British friend, could serve for some readers to moderate harsh appraisals of Saudi/Arab conduct. The author presents his friend Prince Bandar in a gentle light, as could be expected.
Saudi privilege and wealth extends to a very large number of "princes" throughout the Kingdom's royal family. Some estimates count 6-7,000 "princes;" these large numbers accruing because polygamy is accepted practice in Saudi Arabia, and polygamy can be expected to produce large numbers of offspring from even a single royal forbear. In Prince Bandar's case, though his mother's bloodlines are common -- she was his father's servant
-- Bandar's paternal bloodlines are pristine: his father was King Fahd's brother. Since a Saudi king encompasses both vast economic and political power in his person, Bandar was born having the equivalent of Warren Buffet and George Bush Sr. or Jr. as his uncle. Talk about "good birth!"
Yet alongside divvying up the oil-wealth pie, the sheer number of "princes" means there can blazing competition for political power, perks, and perceived closeness to the throne. In Bandar's case, he leveraged his existing advantages by undertaking military training in the United Kingdom (meeting this book's author in the process), becoming in the process a pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force. He doubtless gained some British worldliness besides. While Saudi princes sometimes vie mightily for prestige, let's face it: most are unlikely to actually work very hard achieving it. In many ways, being a fun-time "prince" is its own reward. Yet Prince Bandar, close enough to the throne to begin with, backed up his ambition with effort to the point where he gained one of the Kingdom's critical public offices: the Saudi Ambassadorship to the United States, arguably the Kingdom's most important friend and ally (this reviewer attempts to use these terms without irony).
Superjet and an Eclectic Entourage
Thus begins the worldly, well-bespoke Prince's worldly adventures. Outfitted with his own superjet and an eclectic entourage of Western friends, Bandar, evidently a charming and disarming fellow (so described by his chum the book's author, also a member of that entourage) launches into the nitty-gritty of petro-diplomacy on the one economic hand, and a kind of at-large diplomatic portfolio on the other. Both his title and personal charm secure him close relations with everyone from presidents Reagan to Bush the Second, Queen Elizabeth, to Nelson Mandela and Colin Powell (with whom the Prince spends time at racquetball).
These are valuable contacts, and the Prince undoubtedly served his nation's interests well in his post. It's likely that his diplomatic duties shared an impressive intelligence component, you get the sense Bandar presented a trustworthy demeanor that put sources at genuine ease. When Saddam (recently hanged) Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1991, Bandar's shuttle diplomacy and genuine feel for the "art of the possible" diplomatically and militarily no doubt shaped and streamlined the wildly successful effort to reclaim Kuwait. One senses that Prince Bandar navigated many diplomatic chores with the deftness and winning personal charm that comes from having the complete trust of the King and access to huge, eminently disposable funding. There's no doubt Bandar encompassed all of the necessary tools of an accomplished diplomat, which combined with some well-placed funding, made him a difficult guy to resist. For this reason, besides his U.S. ambassadorship, Bandar was called into many intra-Arab intrigues, primarily for his personal skills but also as the "grease" man who could smooth agreements with well-placed buckaroos. Bandar's "man for all international seasons" run was on par with Henry Kissinger's.
And then comes 9/11/01 with the significant fact that a large number
of that deadly attack's (as many as fifteen of nineteen total) perpetrators were Saudis. There was also an incident described in Gerald Posner's book on Saudi foreign policy in which a high-ranking
Al Gayda terrorist leader is captured,
and, convinced he is in Saudi custody, calmly hands who he thinks are Saudi jailers private phone numbers for three very high-ranking Saudi royals. (All three have subsequently
died under the proverbial unusual circumstances.) Not good. Incidents which, combined with the Saudi madrassas funding, are sure to bore large drillholes into the previous la-lolly-la-la "good" relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Bandar, the architect of the large goodwill that existed between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, is naturally, aghast and appalled that his carefully crafted diplomacy is shredded. As the book ends, Bandar has left the U.S. ambassadorship, and since the book believably casts the Prince's American/Saudi efforts in a largely positive light, it is still an open question whether America and Saudi Arabia can rebuild whatever friendship existed prior to 9/11/01.