The nomination of Prince Turki al-Faisal is intended to show the greatest honour to Britain at a time of extreme tension between the Gulf kingdom and America.
But the choice may be a public embarrassment as the prince is liable to spend much of his time in London fending off questions about the trillion-dollar lawsuit presented by American victims of the September 11 attacks.
Adel al-Jubeir, an adviser to the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, said in Washington the nomination had nothing to do with “diplomatic immunity” because Prince Turki already enjoys legal protection abroad.
An American court issued a summons last week for the 57-year-old prince following the lawsuit from relatives of about 900 victims of the terrorist attacks.
They say Prince Turki struck a deal in 1998 with the Taliban in Afghanistan whereby Saudi Arabia would stop trying to extradite bin Laden in exchange for a promise that he would not attack the kingdom.
But al-Jubeir insisted: “Nobody in Saudi Arabia thinks there is any merit” to the lawsuit. He added: “We believe that he [Prince Turki] will do a splendid job in England.”
Britain will hope that Prince Turki will have enough authority in Riyadh to help resolve the plight of five Britons held for alleged involvement in a series of bombings against expatriates.
Many experts on Saudi Arabia believe that the prince will have little real influence because of his difficult relations with his uncle, Prince Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, who has blamed the bombings on expatriates running illegal alcohol smuggling rings.
Prince Turki, educated in America and Britain, has admitted meeting bin Laden several times when Saudi Arabia was co-operating with America in funding the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
He was head of Saudi Arabia’s equivalent of MI6 from 1977 to 2001 but was abruptly sacked weeks before the September 11 attacks, amid rumours that he had failed to rein in al-Qa’eda, which was already known to be planning a spectacular attack on America.
The appointment of Prince Turki appears designed in part to signal that Saudi Arabia wants close relations with Britain in the hope that London will assuage Washington’s wrath over the fact that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudis.