On Wednesday, April 29, King Salman Bin Abd Al-Aziz of Saudi Arabia announced a set of changes to his cabinet. Salman, 79, assumed the throne after the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah Bin Abd Al-Aziz, in January. Abdullah, who was 90 or 91, earned a reputation as a reformer of the desert kingdom’s harsh social and theological system, founded on the ultra-radical doctrines of the Wahhabi sect of Islam. Abdullah built large coeducational universities, relaxed limits on media, appointed 30 women to the unelected and previously all-male 150-member Shura Council, a national consultative body, and ordered that women be granted the right to run as candidates and vote in municipal elections scheduled for this year.
When he took over three months ago, Salman appeared as a probable upholder of Abdullah’s legacy, if only for the sake of a stable transition. He named Prince Muqrin, now 69 and another half-brother, as crown prince, the official successor. Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, Salman’s 55-year-old nephew and the son of Salman’s full brother, the late crown prince Nayef Bin Abd Al-Aziz, became deputy crown prince, second in line of succession. Muhammad Bin Nayef also retained the office of interior minister, to which he had risen after a career with responsibility for anti-terrorism duties that began in 1999. The upshot of the cabinet changes yesterday is that Prince Muqrin has been pushed aside, and the younger Nayef is now crown prince, and next in line for the throne.
Kinship relations in the House of Saud are complex. Salman and the elder Nayef, the late crown prince, were among a group known as the “Sudairi Seven,” sons of Hussah Bint Ahmad Al-Sudair, the favorite wife of Ibn Saud, founder of the 20th-century Saudi state. The modernizing Abdullah, whose reign began in 2005, was born of another wife, Fahda Bint Al-Asi, and stood outside the Sudairi group. Abdullah was viewed by many Saudi subjects and close observers of the realm as hostile to the Sudairis and to the intransigent Wahhabism for which they stood.
Prince Nayef was feared deeply by Saudis and by Muslims around the world as the epitome of Wahhabi puritanism, and his son, Muhammad, was seen as little better. Nayef was notorious for portraying the al Qaeda assault of September 11, 2001, as the purported work of “Zionists.” Yet a startling reportage in the April 2015 issue of Vanity Fair revealed another aspect of Prince Nayef’s character. Maha Bint Muhammad Bin Ahmad Al-Sudairi, the favorite wife of Prince Nayef until their divorce in 2012, just before his death, was depicted in the magazine with her face covered—not with a black niqab, the Saudi veil hiding everything but the eyes, but with an elegant Renaissance costume mask that concealed little of her features. She had, it was reported, racked up millions of dollars of unpaid bills at hotels, couture houses, and discount clothing stores in Paris.
Princess Maha engaged in such shenanigans while ordinary Saudi women were (and remain) deprived of the right to leave their homes without putting on the all-covering black garment known as the abaya. They cannot drive vehicles on the roads, or meet unrelated members of the opposite sex in public, or be employed unless they are accompanied by a male guardian. Other restrictions weigh upon them. Given that Nayef apparently indulged his wife’s non-Wahhabi behavior and spending sprees when outside the kingdom for so long, it may be unwise to speculate, at this early moment, on the future conduct in office of his son, Muhammad Bin Nayef.