A shadow has darkened prospects for democratic reform in Saudi Arabia with the announcement that the most envied, loathed, and feared man in the country is now heir to the throne. Unless the present king, the elderly and ailing Abdullah, outlives him, the newly named Crown Prince Nayef – himself in his late 70s – is likely to preside over an even more repressive kingdom than Saudi Arabia already is today.
Unpopular domestically, regionally, and globally, Nayef is known for his heavy-handedness, his unequivocal support for the religious establishment, his objection to judicial and political reforms, his opposition to the rights of women and minorities, and his control of the entire Saudi security apparatus.
Despite all this, and because of the challenges facing the Saudi regime at home and abroad, King Abdullah and some senior members of the ruling family deem Nayef to be the right man to rule Saudi Arabia next. President Obama, too, issued a positively laudatory statement—“I congratulate King Abdullah and the Saudi people on the selection of Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as crown prince. We in the United States know and respect him for his strong commitment to combating terrorism and supporting regional peace and security”—even though Prince Nayef is reported to have refused to cooperate with the FBI after the 9/11 attacks on the United States and still insists that those attacks were caused by a Zionist conspiracy. Needless to say, Nayef has never declared his support for the Arab Peace Initiative with Israel.
For the West and other major oil-consuming countries, stability in Saudi Arabia, still the largest oil exporter, supersedes all other considerations, regardless of the price and who must pay. Any major disruption in oil production and shipment from Arabia could create global economic havoc with unmanageable consequences. This situation will continue until a reasonably priced alternative to oil is available.
What is being myopically overlooked, however, not out of ignorance but out of disconcerting necessity, is that Nayef’s ascent to the throne could expedite the very instability in Saudi Arabia that so many are hoping to avoid. If he becomes king, Nayef will preside over a fast-changing and restless society that is less fearful of authority than in the past. Nonstop, lively exchanges on social media show that the Saudi people expect the worst under his reign. The majority of the Saudi people, like other Arabs and people everywhere, yearn for an alternative to their oppressive regime and its outmoded, unresponsive, and dysfunctional institutions. It’s estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of the Saudi population is less than 30 years of age and that over 40 percent of men and women in the 20-24 age group are unemployed. This is a ticking time bomb. Government handouts will not silence these people for long.
Even if Nayef is sufficiently ruthless to guarantee his family’s safety, keep its unruly members in line, and maintain stability for a time by sheer force, he may still be the least suitable man to rule Saudi Arabia in a period of escalating demands for change. These demands come from a generation that is disconnected from the world Nayef and his aging brothers were born into and live in still. Nayef will strengthen the Wahhabi religious establishment to intimidate the populace and keep them in check, as he has always done. A more theocratic and dangerous Saudi Arabia is inevitable under Nayef. It will be partly the fruit of the West’s appetite for Saudi money and oil.
Ali H. Alyami is executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.