Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Negotiator

Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Negotiator

Article excerpt

THE PRINCE by William Simpson Harper Collins, £19.99, pp. 480, ISBN 9780060899868 . £15.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Talleyrand of our age, was for over 20 years the dominant personality in Arab relations with the English-speaking countries. Born into the obscurest royal poverty, Bandar turned himself into a fighter pilot of dash and elan (if not of the very first proficiency), before serving as Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington from 1983 until 2005. He is now secretary-general of something called the Saudi National Security Council, but it is hard to descry through the desert sand and wind his latter-day power and influence.

This biography, written by a British classmate from the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, is the usual courtier's mixture of hero-worship and good information. The challenge is to tell them apart. In Simpson's account, Prince Bandar (rhymes with 'thunder') is a sort of diplomatic Atlas, supporting the whole world on his shoulders, banging heads in Palestine, bringing peace to Lebanon and Libya back to the fold, ending the Cold War. He is punctilious in his religious observances and an exemplary husband and father.

Prince Bandar is a great contemporary, but nobody would claim truthfulness is his particular virtue. On the contrary, as Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State, put it in language worthy of Rumsfeld himself:

The wonderful thing about our relationship is, Bandar, I know when you're lying to me and you know I know you're lying; the same in reverse.

Prince Bandar is a late representative of an attractive character type, part Arabian patriarch and part good ol' boy. (When Bandar swears in this book, which is quite often, he says 'Jesus Christ!'). Born in 1949 in the Saudi summer resort of Taif, the son of the then deputy Defence Minister Prince Sultan and a slave girl of African origin, Bandar was introduced to his father by the latter's driver. For all his dark complexion and frizzy hair -- no euphemisms here -- he was adopted by his powerful grandmother, Princess Hussa. Lying about his age, Bandar was selected for Cranwell, gained his wings in 1969, and went on to advanced pilot training in the US.

The pages on aviation are very good and contain a sensational piece of information.

During the Arab-Israeli war of October, 1973, Prince Bandar trained hard with his F-5 squadron for a surprise attack on Israeli fuel installations at Eilat. According to Simpson's account, the ceasefire intervened, which was a good thing, because Bandar and his men would certainly have been killed. …

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