The Magazine

Who is Prince Nayef?

The most powerful man in Saudi Arabia.

Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By BILL TIERNEY
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IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA, the trappings of monarchy obscure the police state that keeps the Saud family in power. But beneath the veneer of gracious luxury, internal security has never been more important than it is today to a regime that constrains the press and commerce, struggles to provide the generous benefits promised its citizens, and has made the country a breeding ground for Islamic extremism. Enmeshed as we are in an alliance of necessity with the Saudis, Americans should be asking: Who runs Saudi internal security? What are his views about the United States and about jihad? And how much power does he wield in the Saudi power structure?

The man who has been in charge of the Ministry of Interior for the last 27 years is Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, technically the fourth most powerful man in Saudi Arabia. Active and alert at 69--unlike the two leading members of the "Sudeiri Seven," King Fahd and Prince Sultan, both of whom are elderly and ailing--Nayef has far more sway than the Western press has generally recognized. He heads five major oversight committees and imposes himself on four other ministers, while firmly holding the reins of the most powerful ministry in the kingdom.

Indeed, Nayef appears to have made himself irremovable. Certainly he is in a position to remind his brothers, Prince Sultan and Crown Prince Abdullah, that regardless of who makes the public statements or takes the diplomatic trips, it is he who maintains the stability of the kingdom, and his organization that, day by day, keeps the royal family in power. The keys are in his hands, and there is no one who can hold him to account.

The reach of Nayef's influence is truly remarkable. Although there is a ministry devoted to the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of Muslims, for example, Prince Nayef chairs the Supreme Committee on the Hajj; he is the man behind the mike with assurances that everything will run smoothly, an excellent way to burnish his Islamic credentials. The minister of the hajj, Dr. Iyad bin Ameen Madani, has been in the job only since 1999 and would of course defer to the senior minister.

Entry into the World Trade Organization is a major topic in Saudi Arabia lately, and one would expect the minister of commerce, Osama bin Jafar bin Ibrahim Faqih, or the foreign minister, Prince Saud, to be intimately involved. But it is Prince Nayef, head of the Ministerial Oversight Committee on the WTO, who calls the shots and calls the press conferences. Nayef also heads the ambiguously titled Ministerial Committee on Morality (or "Morale"). While Saudi newspapers never explain the function of this committee other than to produce studies on accession to the WTO, they do report some of its meetings. Such a meeting in June 2001, according to the Riyadh newspaper Al-jazirah, was attended by the foreign minister, but took place in the interior minister's office.

Prince Nayef likes to give the younger Prince Saud a hand with foreign policy. It was Nayef, not Saud, who went to Iran for the groundbreaking meeting to renew relations with the revolutionary regime in April 2001. Nayef regularly travels to Yemen for talks that should be the purview of the foreign minister. He threatened to start two human rights committees in response to criticism from Amnesty International. His comments in October 2001 about civilian deaths from U.S. bombing in Afghanistan caused a diplomatic flurry, which he then topped by saying Saudi Arabia would not support a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The poor foreign minister was left grinning and trying to say something important.

Similarly, it is the job of the information minister to control the content of all media in the Kingdom. Since 1995, the position has been held by Dr. Fouad bin Abdul Salaam bin Muhammad Al Farsi--but Prince Nayef heads the Supreme Council on Information. He is a major player in the Saudi media labyrinth.

The involvement of the senior members of the royal family in the Saudi media is far too byzantine to elucidate here. Suffice it to say that the dearth of substantive information on the workings of government in the Saudi press leaves observers scrutinizing every phrase for hidden meanings--as when Prince Salman, governor of Riyadh, returned from overseas and Prince Nayef pointedly was not among those attending the welcome-home reception. Nayef's usual response to negative coverage of Saudi Arabia in the world media is one that draws militants into his camp: He blames the Western conspiracy to hurt Islam and the kingdom. On this issue, Saudi reporters take dictation from the prince. A choice example from the English language Riyadh Daily of October 23, 2001: