By Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan
There are defining moments in one’s life, and each moment marks a phase in personal growth and development. Looking at these indelible moments, one recollects the events and incidents that make one what he or she is today. Often these memories are associated with people and events, and regardless of their nature, they bring about nostalgic feelings that tell us that these people and events have become part of our history and persona.
In 2009, I met Joel Lisker at the Riyadh Economic Forum. We talked and swapped business cards and later had intermittent exchange of e-mail messages. One day I received a surprising e-mail from Lisker congratulating me on the appointment of Prince Bandar bin Sultan as the director general of Saudi Intelligence Agency. He said that he knew him since the AWACS deal.
Mentioning Prince Bandar and the AWACS brought a flash of memories before my eyes. For most people of my generation, Prince Bandar is a role model and an icon whom we aspire to emulate. He appeared on the international political scene at a time when the simple Saudi society was transforming into a modern one.
The oil prices increased phenomenally after 1973, which facilitated comprehensive development and prompted Saudi Arabia to revamp its policies. This changed the Kingdom’s relations with the outside world and as a result, raised the standard of living of Saudis significantly. Saudis started traveling abroad and had their exposure to the outside world, generally the West and particularly the United States.
Most of the Saudis then thought the United Sates to be a faraway place shrouded in mystery and possibly an unfriendly country to the East. Prince Bandar, however, changed all these preconceived views, teaching us how to reap the fruits of persistence; how to think outside the box; and how to rid oneself of mental barriers.
Prince Bandar came into political limelight in the summer of 1978. I was with my friends in London and he was the focus of our talks in the cafeteria of the English language institute. We were talking admirably about his success in lobbying the US Congress to approve the sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia. This sale was the dominant theme in the Arab and Western media, and, of course, the British media.
The F-15s were the cream of US technological innovations, equipped with the state-of-the-art technology, making them the best fighter aircraft in the world. On the other hand, the rising Saudi Arabian society was perceived as being simple and with limited access to the outside world, hence, both Arab and Western media purported that Saudis are incapable of managing this advanced technology. This perception was harmful for us.
Conversely, time proved them wrong, specifically in the Gulf Wars II and III. The world practically discovered that Saudi fighter pilots were among the best in the world.
Prince Bandar established himself in the minds of that generation as a successful negotiator, achiever and a diplomat when Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques late King Fahd appointed him as an ambassador to the United States on Oct. 24, 1983. He sought to purchase from the US the surveillance planes, better known as AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System).
This move could be described as the most critical test of Prince Bandar’s professional career. In other words, he put his career on the line, as any shortcoming could limit his eventual successes as a diplomat. The sale of the AWACS faced stern objections from a majority of Americans, prominent US senators, Israel and its US lobby.
The AWACS provide military advantages to any state. These airplanes are characterized by an antenna that can detect and track other airplanes within an area of 450,000 sq. kilometers; fly at any altitude and over any terrain; detect airplanes hidden from ground radar; and can be deployed quickly into military engagement regardless of its intensity. Obviously, the sale of the AWACS was bound to affect the existing military status quo in the region. Nonetheless, Prince Bandar was able to secure the deal.
President Roland Reagan’s administration announced the sale. Our friend Joel Lisker and John Dudinsky were among Regan’s senior Senate staffers. Both were at the pinnacle of their career. Lisker was serving as chief counsel and staff director of the powerful Senate Committee on Security and Terrorism. Dudinsky was a senior legislative director of the International Committee. They tirelessly and closely worked with President Reagan, the Secretaries of State and Defense, as well as congressional leaders in supporting the Kingdom’s case.
Despite the initial rejection of the deal, Prince Bandar was also able to secure the sale of five AWACS and eight refueling aircraft, with spare parts and support. The aircraft were delivered between June 1986 and September 1987.
By and large, almost whoever was associated with Prince Bandar, succeeded. Those who come to mind are Adel Al-Jubeir as well as Lisker and Dudinsky. Al-Jubeir started working with Prince Bandar in 1987 as special assistant, and he moved on the path of success from director of the Saudi Information and Congressional Affairs to adviser at the Royal Court, and was finally appointed ambassador to the United States in 2007.
On the other hand, Lisker and Dudinsky set up their firm for promoting international relations and business, which is consistently being ranked as a leading Washington firm by the media, top federal officials, and CEOs of major corporations. Among many giant projects, the firm founded three mobile phone companies and it excels at creating new US business opportunities.
Decades have passed since the summer of 1978 when my friends and I were celebrating the successes of Prince Bandar, yet he still remains an iconic figure for most people of my generation, who aspire to be part of his team.
In the nutshell, what has changed is the perception among people of my generation that the US was a mysterious, far-away place. The US has now become a familiar place easily accessible. Consequently, the Saudi-US relations are at their highest levels in modern history.
— Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan is a Saudi academician based in Riyadh.