With the death of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan Ibn Abd Al-Aziz early October 22 in a New York hospital, his brother, Saudi interior minister and second deputy prime minister Prince Nayef Ibn Abd Al-Aziz, now looms large in the world's attention as a possible successor to Saudi Arabia's current ruler, King Abdullah, who is now 87.
. Prince Nayef is a committed adherent of the hardliners in the Wahhabi sect and has resisted the cautious moves by King Abdullah to restrict Wahhabi dominance in the kingdom, which was founded in a marriage alliance of the Al-Saud family and the descendants of Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, for which the radical doctrine is named. To this day, the head Islamic cleric in the kingdom is Abd Al-Aziz Al Ash-Sheikh, a descendant of Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab.
The aging King Abdullah's limited reforms have included increased freedom of expression; appointment of representatives of the Saudi Shia minority, which is concentrated in the oil-bearing Eastern Province, to the consultative Shura council, which advises the king; measures for more participation of women in society, including announcement of limited electoral rights for women last month; separation of educational and religious authorities; dismissal of ultra-Wahhabi judges from the Saudi court system, and cuts in financing for the institution most despised by the Saudi public, the mutawiyin or morals militia, officially titled the 'Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,' and often mis-called a morals police.
In reality, the mutawiyin are not police in the normal sense, but a mob that harasses those they accuse of less-than-absolute fidelity to Wahhabi concepts: women who may let the un-Islamic but Saudi-imposed face veil (niqab) and long cloak (abaya) slip in public; couples that may be unmarried (and sometimes are attacked by the mutawiyin even if wed); people suspected of possessing alcohol in their homes; Shia Muslims; foreign Muslims participating in the hajj pilgrimage; non-Muslims; and anyone else the mutawiyin may allege to be violating Wahhabi strictures. As interior minister, Prince Nayef is their guardian and their abuses symbolize his role in the lives of many Saudis. King Abdullah has tried to make the mutawiyin accountable for its offenses against individual and public dignity.
Prince Nayef is described widely among Saudis as an opponent of any measures intended to ameliorate the kingdom's oppressive image. He has rejected the notion that women should be permitted to drive or be granted any other liberalization of their status. He has disdained the introduction of voting in the kingdom. He has stood behind the most recalcitrant members of the Wahhabi clerical apparatus as they maintain their hold on religious life in the kingdom. He has declared that no Saudi terrorism suspect will ever be turned over to a foreign country.
Yet Prince Nayef and his son Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, who was targeted in a mysterious suicide-bomb attack in 2009, have supervised the Saudi program for abatement of Al-Qaida terrorism. Their program for fighting violent extremism has stressed a "light" approach based on "reeducation" of Wahhabi fanatics about their deviant views. In the 2009 bombing attempt on Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef's life, the young scion was recorded in a pleasant conversation, just prior to their meeting, with the man who killed himself when he came to visit, and, it was said, to attack Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, in Jeddah. Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef was barely harmed.
The main effect of Prince Nayef's campaign against Al-Qaida has been to "export" the Saudi cadres of the terrorist movement to Yemen, where they have organized Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP incited such actions against the U.S. as the Fort Hood massacre of 2009. Other AQAP conspiracies in the UK and U.S. have included targeting of aircraft, including the case of the "underwear bomb," employed in an attempt to bring down a jetliner over Detroit by Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab at the end of the same year; Faisal Shahzad's placing of a truck bomb in Times Square in New York last year, and an endeavour to send bombs to Jewish synagogues in the U.S. via cargo courier services, also in 2010. In the last case, shipping numbers and addresses of the packages, in which explosives were placed, then handed to United Parcel Services and Federal Express offices in Yemen, were delivered by Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef to U.S. authorities... after the packages had been dispatched, but before they reached the U.S.
The curious ease with which Prince Nayef and his son "handle" AQAP activities bespeaks an obvious question: is Prince Nayef's role that of a combatant against terrorism, or a figure who sees his mission as one of keeping Al-Qaida away from threats against the royal family and Saudi institutions? His fervent attachment to the Wahhabi creed seems to place him in the typical Saudi role of maintaining an alliance with the UK and U.S., which market Saudi oil and arm the Saudi defence establishment, while using Western money and security guarantees to promote the doctrines of the fundamentalists.
The certainty of Prince Nayef's sinister reputation among the Saudi masses cannot be denied. He has declared "what we won by the sword we will keep by the sword." If Prince Nayef is elevated to the status of Crown Prince, and then succeeds King Abdullah as ruler, Saudis, other Muslims, and the world may expect a return of the kingdom to its old and worst habits. These will include suppression of internal dissent and of the forward-looking measures instituted by King Abdullah; attacks on non-Wahhabi Muslims; enhanced support for the mutawiyin as well as for jihadist adventurism in South Asia and elsewhere; and a more hostile line toward the UK and the U.S. As king, Nayef might continue to keep Al-Qaida out of Saudi territory, but it is doubtful he would act consequently against the sympathisers of the terrorists inside the Saudi elite, and their Wahhabi clerical enablers, as long as they do not threaten him, the Sudairis, and their accomplices. For the rest of the world, however, the shadow of Prince Nayef is long and menacing.
While the effects of Prince Sultan's demise may be felt across the globe, only two things may be said with certainty about it, and it brings with it disturbing uncertainties, especially involving Prince Nayef.
First, Crown Prince Sultan's death was not unexpected, since the seriousness of his illness – colon cancer – had been common knowledge for some time. But his biography included ambiguities, beginning with his age. According to an official statement, Crown Prince Sultan was 80 when he expired, although various media and related sources speculated that he might have been as old as 87.
The other certainty about the death of Crown Prince Sultan is that Prince Nayef, aged 78 and his possible successor as Crown Prince, is feared profoundly by the kingdom's subjects for his extreme, retrograde views on Islam and the governance of the Saudi state. A new Crown Prince will be designated, but Prince Nayef, although treated by many foreign observers as inevitably next-in-line after Prince Sultan, may face significant opposition. Prince Nayef represents a genuine danger to the people of Saudi Arabia and the world, if he inherits the throne from King Abdullah.
King Abdullah, a half-brother of Princes Sultan and Nayef, became monarch in 2005, with the death of the incapacitated King Fahd. Discontent between Abdullah, on one side, and the clan from which Fahd, Sultan and Nayef sprang, on the other, was already well-known in the kingdom and among foreign observers of its convoluted society. King Fahd, and Princes Sultan and Nayef, owed their power to membership in the influential set of full, blood brothers known as the Sudairi Seven, since they were all children of Princess Hassa Bint Ahmad Bin Muhammad Al-Sudairi, a favorite wife of King Muhammad Bin Abd Al-Aziz Ibn Saud, founder of the kingdom in 1932.
The Sudairis are a powerful family in the central Arabian wasteland of Nejd, where the fundamentalist, exclusivist, radical and violent Wahhabi ideology emerged almost 300 years ago. With King Fahd and Crown Prince Sultan gone from the scene, the Sudairi clique at the summits of the monarchy now consists of five, among whom Prince Nayef is second in age, but the most important.
King Abdullah, as a half-brother of the Sudairis, is not included in their preferred circle. He established an Allegiance Council in 2006-07, made up of 34 sons and grandsons of Ibn Saud, to administer the royal succession process. Most Saudis and foreign commentators interpreted the introduction of the new body as a means of diluting the power of the Sudairis, since they are a small minority within it. If the choice of a successor to Crown Prince Sultan is put in the hands of the Allegiance Council, Prince Nayef could be passed over in favour of someone else.
In 2009, Prince Talal Bin Abd Al-Aziz challenged the appointment of Prince Nayef as second deputy prime minister, warning that this could make him 'heir apparent' to Crown Prince Sultan. The naming of Prince Nayef as second deputy prime minister was seen as a concession to the Sudairis. But Prince Talal called for strengthening the role of the Allegiance Council, of which he is a member, in the succession process. Still, no possible candidate to replace Crown Prince Sultan other than Prince Nayef has been suggested.
King Abdullah's rise to the Saudi throne reflected a decline in the power of Princes Sultan, Nayef, and the rest of the Sudairis. Prince Sultan had served as minister of defence, in which position he oversaw extensive military contracting with the UK and U.S., and his son, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was Saudi ambassador to Washington for more than 20 years, from 1983 until 2005. Prince Sultan enjoyed visiting the U.S. His son, Prince Bandar, was most famous for his cultivation of prominent Americans, his embassy parties, and his access to the White House, thanks to which Saudi Arabia gained advanced weaponry and military support.
Although a full brother to the late Crown Prince Sultan, Prince Nayef is known for very different attitudes from his.