I always like the bit in the Bond movie where 007 and the supervillain meet face to face - usually at the supervillain's marine research facility or golf course or, in this latest picture, his Icelandic diamond mine. Bond knows the alleged marine biologist is, in fact, an evil mastermind bent on world domination. The evil mastermind knows Bond is a British agent. But both men go along with the pretence that the other fellow is what he's claiming to be, and the exquisitely polite encounter invariably ends with the mastermind purring his regrets about being unable to be more helpful. 'But perhaps we shall meet again, Mr Bond,' he says, as the Oriental manservant shows 007 to the door.
It must have been a bit like that when Prince Bandar and his family dropped by the Bush ranch at Crawford a couple of months ago. Bush must have known for the best part of a year that in the run-up to 11 September Bandar's wife, Princess Haifa, had been making regular transfers from her Washington bank account to a couple of known associates of the terrorists. Bandar must have known Bush knew. Each party knows the other party knows they're engaged in a charade, but they observe the niceties, with Laura showing Princess Haifa the ranch, Bush hailing the 'eternal friendship' between the Saudi and American people, and Bandar regretting, as the Saudis always do, that they're unable to be more helpful.
It would be nice if George W. Bond would kick over the cocktails and lob a grenade into Oilfingers refinery, but instead he and the sheikhs are still teasing each other. In this latest curious episode, the official explanation, if I can type it without giggling, goes something like this: Princess Haifa, the wife of the Saudi ambassador to Washington, gets a letter from a woman in Virginia she's never heard of complaining about steep medical bills. Being a friendly sort of princess, she immediately authorises the Riggs Bank in Washington to make payment by cashier's cheque of several thousand dollars per month to this woman, no questions asked. How come I can never get hold of a princess like that when I need one?
Of the $130,000 she receives from the benevolent ambassadress, Majeda Ibrahin signs at least some of the cheques over to a friend of hers, who's married to a guy in San Diego who's helping two of the 11 September plotters. Pure coincidence, say the smooth-talking Saud princelings put up on the talk-show circuit since Newsweek broke the story at the weekend. Could happen to any good-hearted princess.
How did Omar al Bayoumi, the penultimate recipient of the royal largesse, get to hook up with the two terrorists anyway? Well, there's another amazing coincidence. Omar happened to be at the airport in Los Angeles, heard a couple of fellows speaking Arabic, struck up a conversation with them and waddayaknow, one thing led to another, they seemed like decent coves and so, even though he'd never met 'em before, before you know it he's throwing 'em a big welcome party in San Diego and paying up the first couple of months' rent for them on the apartment next door to his. How was he to know Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhamzi had just jetted in from an al-Qa'eda training camp and would go on to hijack Flight 77 and plough it into the Pentagon? Just one of those things, coulda happened to any guy who wanders round airport concourses looking for perfect strangers to cover the accommodation expenses of.
Meanwhile, Majeda Ibrahin, the woman the princess was sending all that money to, turns out to be married to Osama Basnan, another buddy of the al-Qa'eda duo, and one who subsequently celebrated 11 September as a 'wonderful, glorious day'. But here's an odd little thing: Mr Basnan is known to have been in Texas in April when Crown Prince Abdullah and his entourage flew in to the state to see Bush at the ranch. Just another coincidence? Well, sorta: he's supposed to have had a meeting in Houston with some big-time Saudi prince who deals with 'intelligence matters'. This seems an unusual degree of access for some schlub from San Diego who's in the US illegally, as it transpires. He is variously described as a Saudi government agent and al-Qa'eda sympathiser, as if these positions are mutually exclusive.
The reaction of the government-controlled Saudi press is that this is all a lot of hooey put about by 'circles linked to the Zionist lobby'. According to Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef, 'these are nothing but lies'; not the facts of the case - the Saudis don't dispute those - only their meaning. The official line is that it's just one of those cultural differences between the West and Islam: it's very common, we're told, for House of Saud bigshots to help out their financially strapped subjects. As it happens, Majeda Ibrahin is Jordanian. But it would be interesting to know how many others, Saudi or Jordanian, were getting $130,000 from Princess Haifa in this period. Couple of dozen? Two or three? The US has no banking confidentiality worth speaking of: I'll bet the feds had traced the money trail back to the princess's Riggs Bank account within a few days of 11 September, and I'll bet they know where any other monthly payments were going. As things stand, whether intentionally or not, there's a reasonable probability that funds from the ambassador's wife helped pay for the scheme that murdered thousands of Americans. And that the President knew this when he lunched with her at Crawford a few weeks ago.
The Saudi embassy say they've only received queries about this matter from the media, not from the FBI. Odd that. The federal government claims it needs vast new powers to track every single credit-card transaction and every single email of every single American, yet a prima facie link between the terrorists and Prince Bandar's wife isn't worth going over to the embassy to have a little chat about. I doubt very much whether Princess Haifa is deliberately bankrolling al-Qa'eda, but I'm not so sure one could make the same confident claims of those embassy staffers running the begging letters past her. And, even if their hands are clean, the widespread support for Osama among Saudis at home and abroad means it's only a degree or two of separation from hardcore terrorists via their supporters to the Saudi royal family. The fawning legions of ex-ambassadors to Riyadh have been all over the TV assuring us that, oh, no, al-Qa'eda hate the House of Saud and want to overthrow it. But, interestingly, though Osama's boys are happy to topple New York landmarks, slaughter Balinese nightclubbers, blow up French oil tankers, kill Philippine missionaries, take out Tunisian synagogues and hijack Moscow musicals, you can't help noticing they do absolutely zip against the regime they allegedly loathe. There are 6,000 Saudi princes, but none of 'em ever gets assassinated. And, if anything mildly explosive goes off in the Kingdom, it somehow manages to get blamed on Western bootleggers. Statistically speaking, if you're looking for the spot on the planet where you're least likely to be blown to shreds by an al-Qa'eda nutcake, it's hard to beat Riyadh. If al-Qa'eda hated the rest of us the way they supposedly hate King Fahd and co., the world would be as harmonious as a Seventies Coke commercial.
Clearly, the House of Saud has come to an arrangement with al-Qa'eda, and this arrangement involves, among other things, money. More interesting is why the administration insists on pretending otherwise. On 20 September, George W. Bush said, 'You're either with us or you're with the terrorists.' A couple of weeks later, a small number of us began pointing out the obvious: the Saudis are with the terrorists. But the US-Saudi relationship is now so unmoored from reality that it's all but impossible to foresee how it could be tethered to anything as humdrum as the facts. Seven of the nine biggest backers of al-Qa'eda are Saudi, and Riyadh has no intention of doing a thing about it; but the Wh ite House insists, as it did on Monday, that the Kingdom remains - all together now - 'a good partner in the war on terrorism'. Fifteen out of the 19 terrorists were Saudi, but the state department's 'visa express' programme for young Saudi males remained in place for almost a year after 11 September and, if it weren't for public outrage, Colin Powell would reintroduce it tomorrow. The overwhelming majority - by some accounts, 80 per cent - of the detainees at Guantanamo are Saudi, but the new rules requiring fingerprinting of Arab male visitors to the US apply to Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians, Sudanese, Lebanese, Algerians, Tunisians, Yemenis, Bahrainis, Moroccans, Omanis, Qataris, but not Saudis. You can pretty much bet they'll be fingerprinting British and Australians before the Saudis. In his interview with The Spectator, my old friend Ghazi Algosaibi, the much-missed ambassador to the Court of St James's, was doing so many gags it was easy to overlook the most telling nugget. Asked by Boris Johnson why so many Saudis were among the 9/11 killers, Ghazi replied with disarming candour. 'The answer is easy,' he said. 'It was much easier to get a visa for a Saudi.' In other words, the murderers took advantage of the privileged access Saudis have to the United States. Given that Muslims from Eritrea to Afghanistan now have even more onerous entry requirements, come the next atrocity the Saudis are likely to score a perfect 19 out of 19.
This privileged access to America begins with Prince Bandar. The humdrum rank of 'ambassador' hardly begins to cover the special status the prince enjoys in Washington. For one thing, the title implies a posting, and Bandar isn't going anywhere: he's the longest-serving ambassador in town; he's held the job for two decades and he's still only in his early fifties; he has more homes in America than most Americans do; he's seen Reagan, Bush Sr and Clinton come and go, and he's figuring on seeing the back of George W. too. By comparison, American ambassadors in Riyadh are passing fancies. At the specific request of the Saudi government, no Arabic speakers are appointed to the post, a unique self-handicap by the US. Their chaps in the Kingdom spend a couple of years out there getting everything explained to them by the royal inner circle, and then they come home and serve out their day's shilling for the House of Saud on Middle Eastern think-tanks lavishly subsidised by Riyadh. That's the way Bandar likes it. 'If the reputation then builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office,' he once said, 'you'd be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office.' Just so. The columnist Matt Welch observed a while back that, if you close your eyes, America's ex-ambassadors sound like they're Saudis. Effectively, there's no US ambassador to Saudi Arabia but a whole platoon of Saudi ambassadors to the US - Prince Bandar and full supporting chorus.
And what was he doing with Bush at the ranch in September? Most heads of government don't get invited to Crawford. As I've said before, Australia's John Howard, unlike Crown Prince Abdullah, is a real ally in the war on terror, but he's still waiting for ranch privileges; Alberta, not Saudi Arabia, is America's principal foreign source of energy, but premier Ralph Klein can't get past the assistant deputy under-secretary. Meanwhile, Bandar, a humble ambassador from an economically moribund theocratic dictatorship, gets received like a head of state. Nothing quite explains the administration's willingness to assist the Saudis in making a mockery of America's war on terror. Even murkier rumours that the royal house has the goods on Bush and Cheney for some dark oil-biz shenanigans can't account for the scale of the administration's denial. We have a huge Saudi-financed pile of American corpses, the Saudis are openly unco-operative, and meanwhile back at the ranch it's ribs with Princess Haifa.
As for Bandar, he seems far more likely than most Washington diplomats casually ensnared in some embarrassment to have had a reasonable idea of just who exactly his wife was mailing cheques to. For two decades, he's swanked around the capital as a deal-maker with a long reach extending way beyond the accepted role of a diplomat; as Bandar's publicity has it, it was he who negotiated a Sino-Soviet missile deal that caught the US on the hop, he who hand-picked Robert McFarlane as Reagan's national security adviser, he who helped Chad ward off a potential invasion by Libya (really), he who determined the post-Soviet character of Afghanistan. That last one he doesn't talk about so much these days. But that's the kinda guy he is: the Taleban's Talleyrand, the cosmopolitan front man for the exporters of feudalism. Even without his wife's bank statements, it's simply not credible that the global fixer isn't completely aware of his family's and his country's complicity in Islamist terror. Instead of pondering a '90-day ultimatum' to the Saudis, the administration should remove the symbol of the diseased relationship. If the Pakistani ambassador's wife had been funnelling money to al-Qa'eda supporters, they'd both be on the plane home. The day Bandar is, we'll know Bush is serious.
One day the Democrats will stop sleepwalking over the cliff and realise that this is Bush's weak spot, and they've got incriminating pictures and all that sycophantic audio. And, if the Dems don't realise it, then John McCain will, shortly before he runs for president.