BY SIMON HENDERSON
U.S.-Saudi relations are in crisis. King Abdullah thinks the Obama administration's love of universal freedoms is naive and inappropriate for conservative Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, when the big threat is Iran. Washington is upset about the king's alleged offer to bail out Egypt if Hosni Mubarak had decided to cling to power. And there's also the oil factor: With U.S. gasoline prices climbing and despite Riyadh's promises to make up for lost Libyan hydrocarbon sales, the Saudis "throttled back production in mid-March," according to the International Energy Agency.
So when Tom Donilon, the U.S. national security advisor, sat down with the aging Saudi monarch on April 12, there were indeed "a number of issues of common interest" to be reviewed at the meeting, as the Saudi Press Agency dryly reported. Having initially warmed to the newly elected U.S. president, Barack Obama -- who in return offered apparently obsequious deference -- King Abdullah feels let down by the White House on pretty well everything from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Iran, and especially Iran.
The Donilon meeting was particularly interesting because of the reported presence of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the onetime Saudi ambassador to Washington and now the seldom-seen secretary-general of the Saudi National Security Council. For many years, especially when Prince Bandar was envoy to the United States, King Abdullah distrusted him: Too many of the snide stories that Prince Bandar told around town about the then crown prince got back to the kingdom. But Prince Bandar had, and perhaps still has, political and diplomatic talents that King Abdullah needs, especially now.
"Bandar Is Back" was the headline on an October 2010 piece I wrote for Foreign Policy about the prince's return home to Saudi Arabia; he had just resurfaced after mysteriously disappearing from the headlines for a couple of years. Although literally true, it was otherwise a little premature because the prodigal prince then disappeared from view again for several months. But in the last few weeks Prince Bandar indeed has been visibly back, on high-level missions to Pakistan, India, and China.
What it fully means is far from obvious, but there will be speculation about the future of Adel al-Jubeir, the current Saudi ambassador to Washington. Could there be a repeat of the first few weeks of Prince Turki al-Faisal's tenure as Saudi ambassador to the United States from 2005 to 2006, when King Abdullah let the White House know that his official envoy was no longer his chosen interlocutor with Washington?