In Saudi Arabia, the extended royal family is known to have some internal rivalries. But right now, there is more intrigue than usual in the House of Saud. A recent rift between senior princes has become very public.

And as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, it could have implications beyond to the Arabian Peninsula.

JACKIE NORTHAM: About a year and a half ago, Prince Turki al-Faisal assumed the position as Saudi ambassador to the U.S. It's a powerful, influential role, as the two countries are long-time allies. That's why there was widespread surprise and confusion when, in December, Turki suddenly resigned from his post and flew back to Riyadh.

Jon Alterman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Prince Turki had already proved himself as an effective Saudi voice to an American audience.

JON ALTERMAN: He was getting out. He was mixing it up with people. In many ways, he was helping shape an agenda in a way that really had been done for quite some time. And I think a lot of people in Washington who follow Saudi issues said it's good that there is an active Saudi voice that people can engage with.

NORTHAM: Slowly, details about Turki's departure started to trickle out, specifically that his predecessor - Prince Bandar bin Sultan - was continuing to meet with senior Bush administration officials to discuss foreign policy issues. Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. for 22 years and has strong ties to the Bush family. Bandar is now Saudi Arabia's national security adviser.

Chas Freeman - a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia - says he can understand how Prince Turki felt when he found out about Prince Bandar's visits.

CHAS FREEMAN: As a former ambassador myself, I can say that one thing that makes one's work absolutely impossible is officials from the capital sneaking in and sneaking out and pursuing their own agenda directly, without contact with you and without informing you of what they're doing.

NORTHAM: But there may be more to Turki's dramatic departure than just hurt feelings. His brother is Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister. Prince Saud is elderly and reportedly ailing, and Saudi watchers believe Prince Turki and Prince Bandar are vying for his job.

Yusuf Ibrahim, a Middle East consultant, says this is a critical time because there's no consensus among the Saudis over what policies the country should pursue regarding Iraq and Iran.

YUSUF IBRAHIM: Clearly, there is a disagreement within the kingdom about the broad outlines of a new foreign policy towards Iran and in the region. And this is manifesting itself also a personal level in the rivalry between two poles of the foreign policy establishment.

NORTHAM: Amr Hamzawy with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says Prince Turki and his advisors are advocating a diplomatic approach to dealing with Iran.

AMR HAMZAWY: Saying that we have no interest in entering into a new phase of escalation in the Gulf. It's too dangerous for our interests. We will get nothing out of it. We will not be able to protect even Sunnis in Iraq, and we end up even probably risking tensions within Saudi Arabia.

NORTHAM: Prince Bandar represents the other approach to dealing with Iran, says Alterman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

ALTERMAN: Bandar was reportedly arguing for a much more aggressive policy - perhaps even verging out of policy of preemption in some ways - and was pursuing it with people in the administration whom he'd perceived to be sympathetic to that point of view, including the vice president's office.

NORTHAM: Alterman says the Saudis have made it clear to the Bush administration that they're worried about Iran's growing influence on the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq. There have been reported warnings that Riyadh would consider funding Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Still, Alterman says Saudi Arabia will likely fall into a traditional pattern when it comes to dealing with a crisis in its region. That is, try to tamp down tensions, negotiate and attempt to ride out the storm. In the meantime, a new Saudi ambassador to the U.S. has been named. Adel al-Jubeir is not a member of the royal family, but was a close adviser to both Prince Bandar and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah.

Amr Hamzawy with Carnegie says his appointment should help smooth relations with the U.S.

HAMZAWY: The appointment of Adel Jubeir is meant to minimize and actually to get rid of the duality which characterized Saudi foreign policy in the last few months, and in a way, to send someone who is close to both the king - trusted by him and close to Bandar - who seems to be in charge of Saudi- American relations.

NORTHAM: Still, it's unlikely al-Jubeir's appointment will end the power struggle between two strong personalities in a family with a long history of political in-fighting.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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