The Magazine

Who is Prince Nayef?

The most powerful man in Saudi Arabia.

Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By BILL TIERNEY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA, the trappings of monarchy obscure the police state that keeps the Saud family in power. But beneath the veneer of gracious luxury, internal security has never been more important than it is today to a regime that constrains the press and commerce, struggles to provide the generous benefits promised its citizens, and has made the country a breeding ground for Islamic extremism. Enmeshed as we are in an alliance of necessity with the Saudis, Americans should be asking: Who runs Saudi internal security? What are his views about the United States and about jihad? And how much power does he wield in the Saudi power structure?

The man who has been in charge of the Ministry of Interior for the last 27 years is Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, technically the fourth most powerful man in Saudi Arabia. Active and alert at 69--unlike the two leading members of the "Sudeiri Seven," King Fahd and Prince Sultan, both of whom are elderly and ailing--Nayef has far more sway than the Western press has generally recognized. He heads five major oversight committees and imposes himself on four other ministers, while firmly holding the reins of the most powerful ministry in the kingdom.

Indeed, Nayef appears to have made himself irremovable. Certainly he is in a position to remind his brothers, Prince Sultan and Crown Prince Abdullah, that regardless of who makes the public statements or takes the diplomatic trips, it is he who maintains the stability of the kingdom, and his organization that, day by day, keeps the royal family in power. The keys are in his hands, and there is no one who can hold him to account.

The reach of Nayef's influence is truly remarkable. Although there is a ministry devoted to the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of Muslims, for example, Prince Nayef chairs the Supreme Committee on the Hajj; he is the man behind the mike with assurances that everything will run smoothly, an excellent way to burnish his Islamic credentials. The minister of the hajj, Dr. Iyad bin Ameen Madani, has been in the job only since 1999 and would of course defer to the senior minister.

Entry into the World Trade Organization is a major topic in Saudi Arabia lately, and one would expect the minister of commerce, Osama bin Jafar bin Ibrahim Faqih, or the foreign minister, Prince Saud, to be intimately involved. But it is Prince Nayef, head of the Ministerial Oversight Committee on the WTO, who calls the shots and calls the press conferences. Nayef also heads the ambiguously titled Ministerial Committee on Morality (or "Morale"). While Saudi newspapers never explain the function of this committee other than to produce studies on accession to the WTO, they do report some of its meetings. Such a meeting in June 2001, according to the Riyadh newspaper Al-jazirah, was attended by the foreign minister, but took place in the interior minister's office.

Prince Nayef likes to give the younger Prince Saud a hand with foreign policy. It was Nayef, not Saud, who went to Iran for the groundbreaking meeting to renew relations with the revolutionary regime in April 2001. Nayef regularly travels to Yemen for talks that should be the purview of the foreign minister. He threatened to start two human rights committees in response to criticism from Amnesty International. His comments in October 2001 about civilian deaths from U.S. bombing in Afghanistan caused a diplomatic flurry, which he then topped by saying Saudi Arabia would not support a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The poor foreign minister was left grinning and trying to say something important.

Similarly, it is the job of the information minister to control the content of all media in the Kingdom. Since 1995, the position has been held by Dr. Fouad bin Abdul Salaam bin Muhammad Al Farsi--but Prince Nayef heads the Supreme Council on Information. He is a major player in the Saudi media labyrinth.

The involvement of the senior members of the royal family in the Saudi media is far too byzantine to elucidate here. Suffice it to say that the dearth of substantive information on the workings of government in the Saudi press leaves observers scrutinizing every phrase for hidden meanings--as when Prince Salman, governor of Riyadh, returned from overseas and Prince Nayef pointedly was not among those attending the welcome-home reception. Nayef's usual response to negative coverage of Saudi Arabia in the world media is one that draws militants into his camp: He blames the Western conspiracy to hurt Islam and the kingdom. On this issue, Saudi reporters take dictation from the prince. A choice example from the English language Riyadh Daily of October 23, 2001:

Whether it is the efficacy of the Jewish lobby or plain misconception, the Western media seem to be running amuck with reports against the Kingdom and its way of life. On Saturday, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz strongly criticized this trend and affirmed that such campaigns will not have any effect on the Kingdom itself. Prince Nayef's rejoinder to the Western campaign was most timely and may have put to rest whatever doubt one may have on the Kingdom's integrity.

Lately, following the revelation that a member of the royal family had indirectly funded a 9/11 hijacker, Prince Nayef has resurrected the view that the Jews were behind the attacks. An article in the English edition of the Saudi newsweekly Ain Al-Yaqeen of November 29, 2002, states:

Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz said that he greatly suspected that these terrorist organizations have relation with foreign intelligence that worked against Arab and Muslims, topped by Israeli intelligence. They wanted to attack us at our bases and tenets, notably our religion and the Palestinian issue.

He noted that it is impossible that 19 youths including 17 Saudis carried out the operation of September 11, or that bin Laden or Al-Qaeda organization did that alone. We can say that these people are either agents or ignorant since their action was against Islam and Muslims. By this action the world became against Islam, Muslims and Arabs.

It is not a towering or trained intellect that propels Prince Nayef to propound these positions. His bio mentions his "studies in religion, diplomacy, and security affairs." In fact, his lack of education is one of his greatest credentials. The ministers of commerce, information, and foreign affairs all studied in the United States. From an Islamist point of view, they're tainted.

WHAT PRINCE NAYEF does have, thanks to his perch as interior minister, is a better feel for the mood of the populace than anyone else in the kingdom. He sees the Islamist storm brewing and is trying to co-opt its energy to keep the House of Saud, or at least himself, in power. Thus, among his concerns as minister of the interior is the possibility that members of his own security personnel will join the jihad and direct it against the House of Saud, deeming their rule illegitimate on Islamic grounds.

Nayef is keenly aware that the widespread sympathy in Saudi Arabia for Osama bin Laden is a response not to bin Laden's personal charisma but to his jihadist mission, explicitly framed as obedience to the true Islam. It is a danger inadvertently sown by the regime itself, which long ago instituted the incessant intoning of the Koran on state radio and television. Prince Nayef, it seems, has decided to deal with this threat by riding the jihadist wave.

His monetary support for the Palestinians has been high-profile. He was the organizer of the famous telethon to raise money for Palestine in April 2002, and the website of his Saudi Committee for Support of the Al-Quds Intifada carries exhaustive reports on Saudi financial and media support for the Palestinians. Nayef is also general supervisor of the Joint Saudi Committee for the Relief of Kosovo and Chechnya, which funds Muslim activities and conducts training courses in these two countries. This is precisely the kind of relief organization that is routinely used by jihadists as a cover for their activities. Many of the jihadist Arabs in Taliban-run Afghanistan had previously fought in Chechnya.

As interior minister, Prince Nayef is responsible for controlling the clergy within the kingdom. Although he has had the occasional extremist cleric arrested, he stands aside while many others preach jihad. One example from a long list is Ibn Jebreen, a respected sheikh from the Najd region, the heartland of Wahhabism. He emphatically preaches jihad, notably in support of the Muslim brothers in Chechnya. By his logic, anytime Muslims are under attack, it is incumbent on other Muslims to go to their aid. Given that a majority of Saudis cheered the 9/11 attacks, we can expect to see tens of thousands of Saudis head north to help their fellow Muslims when Iraq is attacked. As the ultimate boss of the Border Guards, Prince Nayef will be fully informed.

Further evidence of Prince Nayef's riding the jihadist wave is the case of Sheikh Salman bin Fahd Al-Oadah. Arrested by the Interior Ministry in 1994 for his radical preaching, Al-Oadah was released in 1999 without cause or comment. Since then, he has launched a website, Islamtoday.net, from his home in Buraydah, in the Najd. The English version of this site contains a straightforward definition of jihad:

The general meaning of jihad is the expenditure of effort in order to establish Allah's religion, call people to it, and establish its authority on the Earth, as well as reform the material circumstances of humanity. . . . The specific meaning of jihad is the military engagement of the unbelievers and those who carry the same legal status as the unbelievers. Jihad, by this meaning, becomes obligatory upon the inhabitants of the countries that come under the occupation of the unbelievers.

Today, Al-Oadah enjoys the protection of Prince Nayef's ministry.

Nor can such individuals be dismissed as fringe elements, the Saudi equivalent, say, of the Branch Davidians. When the Palestinians' Al-Aqsa Intifada began in the fall of 2000, senior members of the Saudi Ministry of Defense living in an upscale naval housing complex south of Riyadh heard their imam exhorting them as dutiful Muslims to fight Israel and those who support Israel. No wonder the Saudis hired a PR consultant to hit the Washington talk show circuit and discredit anyone who accuses them of being two-faced.

Some insist that the Saudis are with us behind closed doors, and serve up the standard verbiage purely for popular consumption. If this were so, it would follow that they would rein in the preachers who inspired the 9/11 attackers and the numerous other Saudis who joined forces with bin Laden. A review of the Saudi press and Islamic websites shows that the opposite is true.

AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, American strategists considered some worrisome long-term scenarios, including changes of government in Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Such change may already be underway in Saudi Arabia, where Prince Nayef is taking over before our eyes, retaining heir apparent Abdullah as window dressing.

Most discussions of the succession to King Fahd emphasize the competition between Crown Prince Abdullah, head of the National Guard, and Prince Sultan, head of the Ministry of Defense. These two factions would be major players if civil war broke out. But Prince Nayef already has his troops in place and hard at work. Less clear is whether his agents have infiltrated the other two organizations and have the authority to arrest "disloyal elements."

When the United States finally starts calling this war what it is--a war against jihadist Islam--then clarity will dispel the illusion that our relationship with the Saudis can ever go back to what it was before September 11. The Saudis claim they are combating terrorism. Can they also say they are combating jihad?

In this country, there are some old-school types who cling to their settled view of the Middle East; the academic community (with rare exceptions) is still sinking in the tar pit of postmodernism. But the Saudis have chosen their course, a path they presumably see as consistent with the dictates of the Koran. They will continue to play us for fools as long as they can. It is high time we stopped cooperating. We could begin by taking the measure of the man behind the throne.

Bill Tierney, a former military intelligence officer and UNSCOM inspector, is Middle East director for the background-check agency Owens Online.