Succession worries surface in Saudi Arabia
The passing of Crown Prince Nayef on Saturday underscores just how fragile, and elderly, the Saudi leadership is, reports Rasheed Abul-Samh
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Saudi princes carry the coffin of Crown Prince Nayef Ibn Abdel-Aziz at Jeddah airport
The death of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef Ibn Abdel-Aziz on 16 June in Geneva, Switzerland, took many by surprise in Saudi Arabia, despite his advanced age of 78. Nayef had been on a personal trip to Europe, and had been shown on Saudi TV just a few days before meeting Saudi officials there. He had suffered from cancer in the past, and he had been ill recently. Some reports speculated he died of a heart attack.
His body was flown back to the kingdom and on Sunday night his brother, King Abdullah Ibn Abdel-Aziz, who is 88, and other senior princes, buried him in Mecca. On Tuesday, in a widely expected move, Defence Minister Prince Salman Ibn Abdel-Aziz, 77, was named the new crown prince.
As a tough and outspoken interior minister from 1975 until the end of last year, Prince Nayef struck fear in many Saudis, jailing many opponents and critics of the royal family, where they languished in jails without trial for many years. A close ally of the religious conservatives, he often berated people in public who did not agree with him, and was even known to shout at reporters who asked him questions that annoyed him at press conferences. He controlled all of the Saudi security forces, including the regular police, the secret police, border forces, and was in charge of the kingdom's policies on Bahrain and Yemen.
"He will be remembered as the great police chief and creator of an unparalleled security apparatus which his critics called repressive, but which kept Al-Saud in power. He was late though in recognising the domestic threat posed by Al-Qaeda, and owed much to the creative policies by his son Mohammed in dealing with terrorism," said British writer Robert Lacey, a keen observer of the country, and the author of Inside the Kingdom.
Some liberal Saudis breathed a sigh of relief that Prince Nayef never made it to being king as they feared he would turn back some of the reforms that King Abdullah had instituted, such as allowing women to vote in municipal elections and the mixed-gender university that he built near Jeddah. But Lacey thinks that Nayef's conservative credentials would have given him the power and prestige to push through further reforms, such as allowing women to drive, if he had made it to being king.
"Actually the conservative Prince Nayef had more chance of pushing through, say, women's driving rights, than his brother Salman, who, though extremely pious, does not command the huge conservative constituency of Nayef," said Lacey in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. "Nayef's early death is a tragedy in that it has certainly delayed changes that only he could have pushed through."
Nayef's reign as crown prince was extremely short as he had been appointed to the position only last October after the death of Prince Sultan Ibn Abdel-Aziz. The position of second deputy premier, in effect the number three position in the Saudi leadership, is expected to remain vacant for some time. According to Thomas Lippmann, a scholar on Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah is the last king with the sole power to appoint a crown prince. After he dies, the new king will have to allow the Allegiance Council, made up of 35 senior princes, to select the new crown prince from one to three candidates chosen by him.
"Choosing the second in line will be much harder and there's a chance they'll simply put off making this decision for weeks or months, as there is a tendency to postpone potentially divisive decisions when they don't have to make them immediately," said Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London. "However, the country would probably benefit from more clarity in this area."
Lacey believes that second deputy premier is not a position that needs to be filled, especially when there is a dynamic crown prince. "Prince Salman did not hold the position, and it was only awarded to Prince Nayef when the incapacity of Prince Sultan made it essential for King Abdullah to have a deputy. Naming a second deputy premier pre-empts the choice of future crown prince, and there is every reason for both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman -- and Al-Saud as a whole -- to monitor and weigh up the performance of the various contenders," he explained.
What many Saudis worry about is the third generation of royals and whom among them will be prepared and able to lead the country once most of the second generation is gone. There are therefore several possible candidates for the now vacant position of interior minister. Among them are Prince Ahmed Ibn Abdel-Aziz, Nayef's and Salman's younger brother, who has been deputy interior minister since the 1970s, and Nayef's son Mohamed, assistant interior minister for security affairs, and who has been in charge of the country's counter-terrorism programme.
The problem that the third generation princes face is that the royal family is extremely traditional and conservative, and always appoints princes to public positions according to their age and seniority within the family. Apart from some senior royals who have taken themselves out of the race because of political reasons, such as Prince Talal Ibn Abdel-Aziz, who has been a frequent critic of the family, older princes who might not necessarily be as suited for a particular job, nevertheless get first consideration.
"There are several stars waiting to shine -- who are shining already in fact -- and they are being given all the scope they need to make their names," said Lacey of the third generation of royals. "But one of the guiding disciplines of the House of Saud is respect for age and of not upstaging parents and elders."
Crown Prince Salman was the governor of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for many decades and despite being thought of as friendly to the US, is also known to be very traditional and conservative, allowing the religious police much leeway in policing public morality in the capital.
No one expects the kingdom's policies to change vis-³-vis Bahrain with the death of Nayef, who was known to be extremely wary of Iran and critical of Shia protesters in Bahrain.
"Saudi Arabia's policy is not going to change on Bahrain. Nayef was the instrument of clearly agreed Saudi and general Gulf policy to keep Bahrain Sunni and Arab -- not Shia and pro-Iranian," said Lacey.