Saudi Arabian crown prince Nayef Bin Abd Al-Aziz, designated heir to King Abdullah Bin Abd Al-Aziz, died Saturday in Geneva, where he was receiving medical treatment. Nayef, 78, headed the country’s ministry of interior and was deputy premier in the royal cabinet. He was named crown prince last year.
President Barack Obama expressed “great regret” at the death of the crown prince, and praised his “leadership [under which] the United States and Saudi Arabia developed a strong and effective partnership in the fight against terrorism.” Vice President Joe Biden said that he was “saddened” by the news, and had “looked forward to welcoming [Nayef] to the United States.”
It is doubtful that Obama’s and Biden’s declarations of mourning, however perfunctory they may have been, were shared by many Saudi social reformers, who viewed Nayef with considerable fear, and may be glad to have seen the last of him. Saudi subjects considered him the leader of retrograde forces in the country and spoke with anxiety about the prospect of him gaining power after King Abdullah.
Nayef was mainly known for his intransigence regarding the strict moral and political controls based on the doctrines of the ultrafundamentalist Wahhabi sect, the official Saudi interpretation of Islam. In repudiating changes to the Saudi social order, Nayef was infamous for his 2003 comment, “What we won by the sword we will keep by the sword.” He rejected proposals for elected institutions and blocked women from participating in the limited 2005 Saudi municipal polls.
Nayef had also pushed back on more recent gestures by King Abdullah to modernize Saudi Arabia. Last December, Nayef hosted a conference on “Salafism” – a common camouflage term for Wahhabism – at which Saudi religious exponents of the interpretation endorsed Nayef’s posture that Wahhabi ideology would remain the foundation of governance. The event was interpreted by Saudi-watchers as a counter to King Abdullah’s simultaneous announcement that women would enjoy the right to compete and vote in limited elections scheduled for 2015, without requiring permission from a male family member as a “guardian” or mehram.
In the aftermath of the attacks against America on September 11, 2001, Nayef won notoriety for blaming the terrorist assault on “the Jews.” Once al Qaeda’s responsibility for 9/11 could no longer be denied, Nayef assumed a conciliatory attitude toward terrorists, placing them in a rehabilitation program intended to teach them the incorrectness of their extremist views and reintroduce them to society. This excessively benign posture persisted even after an unsuccessful attempt by a Yemen-based al Qaeda operative to kill Nayef’s son and an assistant in anti-terrorism activities, Muhammad Bin Nayef Bin Abd Al-Aziz, in 2009.
Nayef’s disappearance from the scene may therefore be celebrated by al Qaeda no less than by Saudi social reformers. Still, the undiluted Wahhabism he defended is, in addition to the ideological foundation of the Saudi state, the creed that inspires al Qaeda. Nayef’s dual position as a backer of Wahhabi hardliners in public life and as an anti-terrorism chief captures the deep internal dissonance in the House of Saud and the Wahhabi movement. Since their seizure of Mecca and Medina in 1924-25, Saudi Wahhabis have claimed to be the purest Muslims in the world, and have preached violent hatred of all of whom they disapprove, while depending on the Western powers for protection and for development of their energy income. This contradiction has a deranging effect that feeds terrorist recruitment.
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