On March 2, the Jeddah newspaper Arab News reported that Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abd Al-Aziz, currently the designated successor to King Abdullah Bin Abd Al-Aziz as the absolute ruler of Saudi Arabia, had left for a “vacation” in the United States, via Morocco.

A week later, on March 9, the same Saudi journal and Western media disclosed that Nayef had come to America for “routine” medical tests at a clinic in Ohio.

The condition of Crown Prince Nayef has been a topic for controversy among Saudi subjects and Saudi-watchers since he was named crown prince and successor to King Abdullah after the death last October of Nayef’s brother, the previous crown prince and successor, Sultan Bin Abd Al-Aziz.

Prince Sultan was the father of the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, infamous for reveling in his free access to the White House. Sultan was also Nayef’s full brother. Sultan, Nayef, King Fahd, who died in 2005, and four others made up the “Sudairi Seven.” This was a clique based on the influence of their mother, Hussah Bint Ahmad Sudair (1900-69), a favored spouse among the many wives of Muhammad Bin Abd Al-Aziz, better known as Ibn Saud (1876-1953), founder of the present-day Saudi state in 1932. King Fahd was succeeded by King Abdullah, his half-brother and a non-Sudairi.

Of Ibn Saud’s sons, King Abdullah is now 88, and bothered by back problems, while Crown Prince Nayef is 78. Since he attained power, King Abdullah has pursued a slow but consistent program of reform in Saudi institutions. His measures have hardly been revolutionary, being limited mainly to symbolic concessions to women–allowing them greater educational access and a promise of electoral rights within the restrictive Saudi political apparatus.

Crown Prince Nayef, by contrast, is a voluble opponent of change in the kingdom and unwavering defender of the hated mutawiyin or morals patrols, often mislabeled “religious police” by outsiders. The mutawiyin monitor life in Saudi Arabia to prevent women from driving, unmarried or unrelated couples from appearing in public, and similar infractions of Wahhabi doctrines. The mutawiyin and other Saudi bodies harass the country’s significant Shia Muslim minority–handing a propaganda weapon to Iran, which poses as the protector of the Shias. The mutawiyin raid homes looking for alcohol and have harassed foreigners for observing Christian devotions.

Crown Prince Nayef’s retrograde attitudes are balanced by his role as the head of anti-terrorism activities for the Saudi government, although his emphasis on “reconciliation and rehabilitation” of “deviant” extremists often seems lacking in appropriate commitment to their defeat.

Both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Nayef are old and in delicate health. Put bluntly: Who dies first? If Abdullah expires before Nayef, and the latter is awarded the crown, most Saudis believe all reform efforts will be reversed, and the state will fall back into the habits to which it was devoted before September 11, 2001. The most problematical of these has been the financing of ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi religious expansion in Sunni Muslim communities around the world. Wahhabism was and remains the ideological foundation of al Qaeda. But King Abdullah has reduced state backing for international Wahhabi activities.

Should Crown Prince Nayef’s medical problems be serious, and should he disappear from the scene before King Abdullah, the succession to the throne will, at least on paper, be determined by an Allegiance Council, consisting of the remaining sons and grandsons of Ibn Saud. The council was created by King Abdullah in 2006-07. The interests and inclinations of the Allegiance Council are hardly transparent. It could name a new crown prince sympathetic to King Abdullah’s modernization strategy, or it could back a return to hard-line Wahhabism. The appointment of Crown Prince Nayef illustrated starkly the isolation and opposition faced by King Abdullah from the Wahhabi clerics and their supporters.

Saudi Arabia has undergone considerable anxiety over the recent upheavals in the Arab lands. Riyadh sent its troops and police, along with those of other Gulf Cooperation Council states, into Bahrain to suppress civic protests by the Shia majority there. King Abdullah has been outspoken in his condemnation of the bloodthirsty atrocities of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.

In Tunisia and Egypt, religious parties exploited the sudden political void that opened up before their countries’ citizens. The Islamists successfully convinced large numbers of voters that given the corruption and unredeemed promises of political and economic advancement held out by secular politicians, it was worthwhile to allow the ostentatious believers an opportunity to apply their ideology to state policy.

Arab supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were encouraged in this direction by the adroit political acrobatics of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP. While it is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan portrays the AKP as a moderate Islamist alternative that does not challenge the secular state in Ankara. Ordinary Turkish citizens and Turkish émigrés abroad, however, warn that Erdogan and his supporters aim at reducing the rights of women and minorities–the same worries now voiced in Tunisia and Egypt after Islamist victories.

Saudi Arabia therefore plays an indispensable and complex role in Middle East affairs right now, based above all on its commitment to Arab stability. Prominent Saudis, such as Prince Talal Bin Abd Al-Aziz, another non-Sudairi known as an opponent of Crown Prince Nayef and the Wahhabis, have proclaimed Saudi Arabia’s official distance from the suddenly-powerful Wahhabi “Party of the Light” that, under the camouflage label of “Salafism,” gained a large share of the Egyptian electorate. The question of how the Egyptian “Salafi”/Wahhabis were financed remains unclear. Rich Saudis may have contributed to them, without official backing from the monarch. (Prince Talal is best-known to Americans as the father of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who offered $10 million to New York mayor Rudy Giuliani after 9/11, and was rebuffed. Alwaleed has positioned himself as a liberal in Saudi internal affairs, while financing academic programs and investing in media and social networking enterprises in the West.)

If King Abdullah survives Crown Prince Nayef, and remains in power long enough to entrench the reform course, it is doubtful that an active entry of the kingdom into the series of Arab transformations would lead to more fanatical regime. Saudis have experienced the worst of radical Islam, and it would be perverse if ordinary people were to leap to cast ballots in a Saudi election for the Muslim Brotherhood, or its Wahhabi rivals.

Many Saudis are deeply weary of their country’s history as an object of suspicion for fostering intransigent Islamist ideology. The confrontation between reformers and Wahhabi diehards is stalemated, as illustrated by developments in the case of the young blogger Hamza Kashgari, who was arrested for three allegedly “blasphemous” tweets referring to Muhammad. On March 6, Kashgari declared his “repentance” in a Saudi court. This may lead to his release with a reprimand. Or it may produce his execution, as an example for others.

Even in Iran, recent legislative elections have demonstrated that the reformist Green Movement, opposed to the deranged president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, remains powerful, if reduced in its capacity to challenge the Tehran tyrants. As reported by the Gulf News, based in the United Arab Emirates, on March 10, the Iranian elections of March 2 saw the defeat of most of Ahmadinejad’s candidates. Unfortunately, the main winner in the Iranian balloting was Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose social and political views are no less authoritarian and paranoid than those of Ahmadinejad. But as in Saudi Arabia, many Iranians appear sick of fanaticism, with its accompanying and increasing global isolation and ostracism.

The medical state of Saudi crown prince Nayef may be trivial, or it may be a key aspect of the situation shaping up in the Muslim lands, including the status of energy resources. Saudologists can only watch and wait for more clues to the future of the Wahhabi-dominated monarchy–through medical reports no less than dissident tweets.

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