A Hardline, Conservative, Reclusive Heir Who Shuns Foreign Travel
On Friday, March 27th, an unusual day for royal appointments in Riyadh, King Abdullah promoted the minister of the interior, Prince Nayef, to second deputy prime minister.
The appointment, which should have taken place in 2005 when Abdullah acceded to the throne upon the death of his half-brother Fahd, places Nayef in the direct line of succession after Crown Prince Sultan, who is unlikely to recover from surgery in an American hospital after a long battle with cancer of the small intestine. The king long avoided inserting this vital link in the line of succession – partly out of respect for the royal traditions established half a century ago: The positions of monarch and crown prince alternate between the two leading royal factions, the Sudairis and the others, and the second in line to the throne is not revealed while the first is still alive.
That the king jumped the gun with a second Sudairi after Sultan attests to the latter's terminal condition.
Prince Nayef, at 76, a decade younger than the king and crown prince, has a better than good chance of getting his promotion approved by the Allegiance Committee when Sultan gives up the ghost.
Formed in 2006, this committee represents all the clans composing the royal family.
Some princes spoke out against the appointment soon after it was announced. Prince Talal, for instance, broke with royal mores and published a statement stating that Abdullah's decree does not promise Nayef the post of crown prince in the future and called on the king to clarify this point. However, according to our Saudi experts, the dissatisfied princes cannot count on a majority to block Nayef's accession to the throne after the deaths of Abdullah and Sultan, although their arguments against his candidature are valid.
No diplomat, a friend to imams, and reclusive
As future king, Nayef's is short of diplomatic experience; he stands out as an ultra-conservative at a time when the oil kingdom is swept up in a royal reform program.
Prince Talal was a leading proponent of reform momentum long before it was adopted by King Abdullah. In the 1960's, his passport was briefly revoked due to his outspoken advocacy of a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia and espousal of Egyptian ruler Gemal Abd al-Nasser. The prince had to promise to tone down his rhetoric before he was reinstated, but his views have not changed much.
Prince Nayef sits at the opposite end of the spectrum. Some see him as leader of the conservative movement, yet as tough minister of interior since 1975, he is credited with having crushed or substantially reduced the threat of al Qaeda and fundamentalist Islam to the kingdom's security and stability.
He owes much of this success to his close ties with religious figures once identified with the Islamist opposition.
In recent years, Nayef has been jockeying quietly for the post of second deputy prime minister to place him in line to the throne, but kept his bid out of the public eye so as not to rouse sleeping opponents.
But of late, he stepped out of character and began seeking media exposure in order to set forth his credentials. They are clearly wanting in many important fields and scarcely qualify him for international stature as the head of the world's biggest oil exporter and wheeler and dealer on the world arena.
The would-be king of the oil kingdom has never paid an official visit to the United States, Saudi Arabia's foremost ally.
He has hardly traveled anywhere, except for official trips to China and South Korea to collect honorary titles and to France. His foreign connections are more or less limited to the Gulf and Arab countries, with which he negotiated border or security arrangements.
Ultra-religious and unfamiliar with foreign relations
He has had few close dealings with US intelligence and security officials, although they worked together to crush al Qaeda's terror campaign in the kingdom and some other issues.
In April 2008, things began to change, when the Saudi media reported that the reclusive interior minister had met with US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and the commander of U.S. forces in the region, Gen. David Petraeus, who came over to Riyadh to discuss next-door neighbor, Iraq.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that Prince Nayef's stock has risen with his promotion on the succession ladder, and US diplomats in Riyadh are making a point of holding background talks to better grasp his character.
He is a hard man to fathom. Rarely voicing his thoughts on foreign policy issues, he has allowed the Saudi media to quote him since his appointment as second deputy prime minister as saying that the Palestinian problem is a major issue for the Arab world. On another occasion, he spoke in favor of Palestinian unity.
All this was too vague to show where the future Saudi king stands on regional issues. For now, he is lining up with the king on Middle East peacemaking.
Despite his reactionary image on domestic issues, Nayef is not expected to roll back Abdullah's reforms when he attains the throne. But he will not stop working with clerical leaders and may even gradually restore the imams' grip on the education and judiciary while continuing to weed radical elements out of these systems.
Last month, he sternly ordered Shiite protesters in the city of Medina to respect the Salafi-Sunni version of Islam, the official state religion.
On women's rights, which have improved somewhat in recent years, he has clear limits. In 2001, he endorsed the decision to let women have their own identity cards, finally freeing them of total dependence on their husbands or guardians for an identity. He has also spoken out publicly against the forced segregation of the genders at conferences.
A hard man, a hard line
At the same time, he recently put his foot down against calls for women's representation in the Majlis al-Shoura, Saudi Arabia's closest approximation of a parliament. His venture into liberalism has clearly run its course and women need not expect much in the way of empowerment from their next king.
Neither need the champions of democracy; on the same occasion, he nipped in the bud proposals to have a part of the Majlis al-Shoura actually elected.
While a staunch conservative, he sometimes tries to navigate a tricky course between the government's positions and the dictates of the most austere ulema in the Muslim world.
This sketchy political profile of a retiring Saudi prince shows large gaps in his economic and diplomatic attributes for high royal office, which a period of study will have to fill.
Resistant to change, Nayef is expected to maintain the kingdom's ties of cooperation with the United States, although his remoteness from this relationship may present difficulties at first.
At home, he will keep in with the clergy, while showing some sympathy for the mid-level imams who oppose the reigning religious hierarchy and seek to reform the establishment from within. But this conservative prince will not stray far from the status quo to either side. He may not undo Abdullah's reforms, but he may finesse them to match his views.
In short, Nayef's elevation to the path leading to the throne is not good news for those who see Abdullah's social and political reforms as a good introduction to more transparency in government with more to come.
The fact that during his 34 years in the key post of interior minister, Nayef never opened up to foreign contacts or the domestic media attests to this prince's hard, inflexible and withdrawn personality and outlook.
His appointment is already raising a ruckus in the royal house.
Sultan's close-to-terminal condition has placed Nayef two stepping-stones away from the throne. As he skips closer, the princely malcontents will most likely pipe down and turn their energies towards selecting a liberal to replace Nayef as the next second deputy prime minister and No. 3 in the line of succession.