Medical visits by Nayef to the U.S. and, eventually, Switzerland, stirred discussion inside Saudi Arabia and among foreign observers of the Saudi system over whether he or King Abdullah, who is 88, would die first. Under a succession structure adopted in 2006-2007 by order of King Abdullah, an Allegiance Council will meet to name a new crown prince. The Allegiance Council consists of the living sons and grandsons of King Ibn Saud (1876-1953), who established the presently existing Saudi dominion in 1932. The Council was formed to resolve anticipated contentions between the Sudairis – seven sons of Ibn Saud and a favored wife, Hussah Bint Ahmad Sudair (1900-69) – and the rest of the royal family. The Sudairis, who included Nayef, are now reduced to four. King Abdullah is not a Sudairi, but was a half-brother to his Sudairi predecessor, King Fahd, as well as to Nayef and the previous crown prince Sultan, another Sudairi, who died last year.
The most frequently mentioned candidate for approval by the Allegiance Council as the new crown prince is Prince Salman Bin Abd Al-Aziz, who is 76 and a Sudairi. Prince Salman was named defense minister by King Abdullah last year, and was governor of Riyadh province, surrounding the Saudi capital, for 57 years, beginning in 1954. While Prince Salman has proven an efficient modernizer of the city and its environs, his chances to succeed Nayef and his attitudes toward reform in the kingdom may only be guessed. The sudden opening of the succession process may allow a grandson of Ibn Saud, representing the younger Saudi elite, to become crown prince.
For the moment, Saudi subjects can be assured that Nayef, with his sinister reputation, will no longer block King Abdullah’s reform program, slow and cautious as the latter has been. At the same time, the possibility of turmoil over his replacement injects an undesirable element of uncertainty into the broader Middle East picture. With the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) having dissolved the recently elected parliament in advance of the weekend’s presidential balloting, and with increased regional concern about the carnage in Syria and Iranian regional ambitions, stability in Saudi Arabia, along with continued, if not accelerated, internal social reform and further measures to curb the power of the Wahhabi clerics, are necessary.
Irfan Al-Alawi is executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor.
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