Why Did the Saudi Ambassador Quit?

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Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Turki Al Faysal arrived in Washington and left with barely a murmur, more or less ignored by the Bush Administration. Turki was at the post only 15 months before he suddenly resigned last week without explanation; by contrast his predecessor, Prince Bandar, the best connected envoy in Washington in the last half century, spent 22 years in the post. As if anyone had any doubt about Bandar's status, two days after 9/11 Bandar was sitting on the Truman balcony with Bush, helping to decide the world's future.

But it isn't as if Turki lacked for status in Washington. When Turki was Saudi intelligence chief, he more or less ran the mujahedin forces in the Afghan war, putting the last nail in the coffin of the Soviet empire. When Congress halted funding to the Contras, Turki was behind the decision to step in and help pay the Reagan Administration's bills. A Georgetown graduate and realist, Turki would have made an ideal interlocutor for the new secretary of defense Bob Gates. You would have thought Washington would have embraced Turki. Even the neocons.

The explanations for Turki's abrupt departure vary wildly: Turki will replace his ailing brother as foreign minister; Turki was furious he was cut out of last month's Cheney-King Abdullah meeting; Turki felt slighted because Bandar was actively undermining him in Washington; Turki is in a succession fight with Sultan, the defense minister and Bandar's father; Turki couldn't get an audience with the neocons; Turki was caught secretly meetings the Israelis. It's not surprising there isn't a consensus; the Saudis keep their own counsel.

But someone who saw Turki before he left Washington advised me to consider another explanation: Turki was recalled to prepare for the possibility of war with Iran.

After all, the controversial Nov. 29 Washington Post op-ed written by Turki's political consultant Nawaf Obaid — in which Obaid writes that Saudi Arabia will fight to protect Iraq's Sunnis if the U.S. were to begin withdrawing its forces from the country — was authorized by King Abdullah. When I asked this person why the Saudis immediately denied Obaid spoke for the Kingdom — and in fact dismissed him from his official duties — he said: "It's all a smoke screen. The Saudis want to deliver a message, but they also need plausible denial to preserve their options."

"Don't be mistaken," my friend added. "Obaid is Turki's creation, his employee. Obaid doesn't freelance. And neither does Turki, for that matter. The op-ed was sanctioned by Riyadh. End of story. It's tantamount to Saudi declaration of war on Iran" His call, then, was that "Turki was promoted, not fired."

It makes sense. King Abdullah, faced with Iran's grab for influence in Iraq and Lebanon, needs Turki home by his side. Turki knows Iran better than any other Saudi prince. It was Turki who opened the first official backchannel to Iran after the Iran-Iraq war. Since then, Turki has kept a dialogue with Iran open. At the same time, Turki knows Tehran is a threat. Iran can and will close the Strait of Hormuz, cutting off 20% of the world's daily oil production, if provoked. And so, with Turki's advice falling on deaf ears in Washington, why not bring him home where he can do some good?

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down