The Washington Post’s David Ignatius recently titled a column “Is Saudi Arabia on the edge?” Perhaps he should have asked whether the entire Middle East was out there on the ledge beside the kingdom.
With Syria locked in civil war, Iran staring down the barrel of Israeli and U.S. threats, and Egypt, Tunisia and Libya struggling to emerge from decades of dictatorship, Saudi Arabia may not seem the likely choice for concern. But, as is so often the case, Ignatius has singled out a pivotally important and largely overlooked occurrence that sheds light on the precarious situation of the entire region.
The kingdom recently appointed a new intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Bandar is a seasoned veteran of diplomatic and covert affairs. He was ambassador to the United States for two decades and has taken part in secret deals with China, Syria and Lebanon (and likely many more that remain classified). His appointment, according to Ignatius, “probably signals the desire of both King Abdullah and the new Crown Prince Salman to have an experienced covert operator to handle sensitive foreign contacts at a time of sharply rising tensions.”
But that’s not all. The Saudis also mobilized military and security personnel last month, going so far as to call some back from summer leave. On the home front, Abdullah has been struggling to contain protests by the country’s Shia minority. Regionally, he is faced with the fallout from Syria’s ongoing civil war, which is reinvigorating simmering sectarian tensions, as well as the possibility of a conflict between Iran, Israel and the United States. Tehran has taken special aim at Bandar’s appointment, calling him “the linchpin in the ‘dastardly subterfuges’ of the CIA and Mossad against Syria” and ratcheting up long-standing Saudi-Iranian resentment. In short, the kingdom is “going to battle stations”—and with good reason.
Ignatius’s smart column lays bare the degree to which the Middle East is teetering on a precipice. Now, one of Washington’s closest Arab allies has “installed . . . a war cabinet.” That’s a development the United States ignores at its own peril.