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.
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.