1. Split in the Royal House
The fight against al-Qaeda has turned the splits in the Saudi royal family, already wide, into a gulf. Above all, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly can report, Crown Prince Abdullah, the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, and his half-brother Prince Nayef, the minister of interior, are fundamentally at odds over the basic approach the royal family should take to the war on terror.
Abdullah and his inner circle believe that the struggle against terrorism can be won only if the royal family takes a much more positive attitude to the Saudis who cry out for social and political reform. They are aware that the result of this would be a weakening of the power and influence of the conservative Wahhabi clerical establishment.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has reported that Abdullah, in the past, while appearing to sympathize with the reformists has, in effect, ignored them. But this is changing. Recently the people around him have been taking the reformists seriously, and encouraging them to prepare petitions for the crown prince.
This approach is vehemently opposed by Nayef.
Last year’s al-Qaeda attacks on Saudi Arabia have energized the interior minister. Before February 2003, he tended to be laid back; now he is outspoken and proactive. He and his full brother, Prince Nawaf, the head of Saudi intelligence, take the opposite line to Abdullah. They believe that the only way in which the royal house can defeat al-Qaeda is with the full co-operation of the conservative religious establishment, the moral police and the charity institutions.
Specifically, Nayef believes that fundamentalist religious co-operation is needed to persuade family members of suspected terrorists to hand them over to the authorities. Offsetting firebrand preaching in some mosques, Nayef wants religious figures to appear on television in order to persuade families that if they hand over their loved ones, the suspects will be treated fairly. Respected clerics, including ones who are not altogether out of sympathy with al-Qaeda’s philosophy, would announce on television that they were prepared to stand guarantors of such fair treatment.
Nayef threatens disaster if Abdullah’s line were to be followed. If the royal house distances itself from the conservative religious establishment, he claims, many fundamentalist clergy may turn instead to Osama bin Laden’s supporters.
Everything hinges on the succession
The war in the royal house is mirrored in the country’s daily newspapers. Al Watan, a paper published in the southern Asir region, champions the liberal line that reform, and a shrinking of Wahhabi authority, are essential if the ills of the kingdom and the royal family, are to be cured. Al Medina, a conservative newspaper, champions the opposite line. The two Saudi newspapers published in London, Al Hayat and Shawq-al-Awsat, both adopt a relatively liberal line.
Out of the blue last Thursday, January 8, Prince Nayef put the following sentence into a speech: “There are no disputes in the royal house”.
It is clear from this that rumors about the split have become so widespread, that the prince recognized the necessity of denying them openly.
As always in Saudi Arabia, the dispute touches on the troubling issue of royal succession. It is generally understood that when Abdullah formally succeeds to the throne upon the death of the long incapacitated King Fahd, he will appoint as crown prince his half-brother, defense minister Prince Sultan who is the senior member of the powerful Sudeiri clan. But the two half brothers are both octogenarians and DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources report that Sultan is into the bargain seriously ill with the usually fatal Hodgkins Disease. This has spurred on Nayef, also a Sudeiri, to harbor monarchical ambitions of his own. And the argument on what to do about al-Qaeda, and the cultivation of the conservative clergy, plays a big role in his plans to advance those ambitions.