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Sudden Death and Succession in Saudi Arabia

8:05 AM, Jun 22, 2012 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Furthermore, the fact that Salman’s son Faisal publishes Asharq Al-Awsat and Arab News, which feature accurate reporting and critical opinions, demonstrates an alignment with Abdullah’s ameliorative ambitions. Further, with Nayef out of the ministry of the interior, Ahmed may further professionalize policing in the kingdom, and improve Saudi action against al Qaeda. Although he assumed a posture of stern repression against violent radicals, Nayef, as anti-terror chief, held the view that jihadists could be “rehabilitated” by moving them back to Saudi Arabia from the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay and providing them with proper teaching. But the success of the project varied, with the Saudis claiming “only” a 10 percent rate of return to al Qaeda activity, typically in Yemen.

One anecdote that further illustrates the difference between Salman and the Wahhabi troglodytes who supported Nayef involved another of Salman’s sons, Sultan Bin Salman. In 1985, the young prince traveled aboard the U.S. space shuttle Discovery, and observed the Earth’s curvature and rotation around the Sun. Sultan Bin Salman communicated the evidence of his eyes to the blind Wahhabi cleric Abdullah Ibn Baz (1910-99), then grand mufti of the Saudi kingdom, who in 1966 and 1982 had proclaimed that the Earth was a flat disk around which the Sun revolved. Ibn Baz threatened to condemn anybody who thought otherwise as an apostate from Islam, but withdrew his opinion after prince Sultan Bin Salman’s return to Earth and communication with him.

Salman also has ugly incidents in his past. In 2002, as governor of Riyadh, he ordered the flogging without trial of 39 young men, including 11 foreigners, for “harassing girls”— i.e. flirting—near girls’ schools, women’s colleges, and in public parks. The lashings were carried out by representatives of Salman’s governorate office, the department of public prosecutions and investigations, the police, and the infamous “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” or “morals patrols,” usually referred to as “religious police.”  

But ten years have passed since then. The “morals patrols,” which formerly included unpaid personnel and were known to the public as “pious volunteers,” were reformed by order of King Abdullah in 2007. They no longer carry leather-covered sticks with which to beat those they suspect of straying from Wahhabi strictures. Nayef’s fanatical Wahhabism included intransigent support for the “morals patrols,” although they report to the king, and not to the interior ministry which he directed.

In May, a viral video posted from Saudi Arabia showed a woman in a mall confronting and denouncing members of the patrols who ordered her to leave the facility. She appealed to the regular police for assistance, and appeared to succeed in her rebuff of the Wahhabi monitors of public conduct. She threatened to inform the new head of the “commission,” Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, appointed by King Abdullah in January, of their misbehavior.

With a team now including the new crown prince Salman, prince Ahmed, King Abdullah, at his advanced age, may succeed in his efforts for reform. Such might render a full-fledged “Arab Spring” scenario unnecessary in Saudi Arabia. The blind Muslim cleric Ibn Baz once intimidated the whole Sunni Muslim world, but Salman’s son Sultan told him the truth about the heavens and the earth, which he had seen for himself. That lesson, which epitomizes the Saudi dilemma, should be remembered and emulated.

Irfan Al-Alawi is executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor. 

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