Troubles in the House of Saud?

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U.S. President George W. Bush meets with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 23, 2006.

At a time when the U.S. is striving to enlist the support of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led moderate states to help counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, few foreign diplomats are as important a player as Riyadh's man in Washington. Which is why Prince Turki Al Faisal's sudden, unexplained resignation earlier this week, which came after just 15 months in his post, has left Washington so puzzled and concerned about possible palace intrigue in the House of Saud.

One source close to the Saudi family says a variety of factors played into Turki's surprising departure — both personality differences, but also genuine differences of opinion inside the monarchy over how to deal with Iran's growing threat in the region. This advisor said that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the current national security adviser and former longtime Saudi ambassador in Washington, as well as his father (who is also defense minister) Prince Sultan, and others in the so-called Sudeiri branch of the royal family have long favored cautious, but somewhat more aggressive methods to deal with Iran than has the al-Faisal branch, represented by Prince Turki and his brother, the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. However, another well-placed Saudi source disputes this notion, claiming that the Prince would never have resigned over any such differing views — and that in any case there is no such clear factional split over Iran policy.

Speaking to a foreign policy group in Philadelphia last week before his resignation, Turki did say that Iran's nuclear ambitions were "clearly a concern for the global community." But in sharp contrast to the Bush Administration's policy of isolating Iran, he stressed that "we speak directly with Iran on all issues. We find that talking with them is better than not talking with them."

Whatever internal differences the Saudis may have, it is a well-established fact that though there have often been disagreements on 9/11 policy, Afghanistan, Iraq and other difficult issues, the family has always quietly reached a consensus that then becomes national policy.

Still, one thing that does not seem to be at issue in the current episode is that a personality conflict between Bandar and Turki played a big role in his abrupt exit. According to sources close to the family who spoke to TIME, Turki had grown fed up and "angry" that Bandar was still trying to act as Saudi Arabia's point man in dealing directly with President Bush and Vice President Cheney. More general reports of bad blood between the two Saudi princes have also fed rumors that Bandar, also the King's nephew, is positioning himself to replace Turki's brother Faisal as foreign minister. Turki has also been rumored as likely to succeed his brother, but some Saudi watchers say that, at least for now, the King and other decision makers are undecided.

As distressed as the White House may be over the apparent disarray in the House of Saud, it is just as reluctant to inject itself into an internal Saudi squabble or risk offending Bandar, who is close to the Bush family and others in the Administration. That means that only King Abdullah can sort out the mess. In the past, the King's style has been to move quietly and cautiously.

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