As Saudi King Abdullah ails, all eyes are on the heir

Prince Nayef may toughen Saudi rhetoric, but the kingdom’s politics by consensus will limit his ability to act.

November 23, 2010 11:48
Saudi King Abdullah with Prince Abdel Aziz

Saudi King Abdullah with Prince Abdel Aziz AP 311. (photo credit: AP)

As the ailing, 86-year-old king, Abdullah, travels to the United States to undergo medical treatment for a blood clot, the face of the new Saudi Arabia is likely to emerge very soon – and it is likely to be the tougher visage of Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz.

Known to hold very conservative views on social and political issues, Saudi Arabia foreign policy under Nayef will likely sound more combative to Western ears, even if his room to maneuver actual policy positions is constrained by the rule-by-consensus style of the Saudi royal house, analysts said.

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"Saudi Arabian diplomacy will probably become tougher," Muhammad Al-Masri, a researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, told The Media Line. "He will demand a more decisive response to the 2002 Saudi peace initiative. He won't settle for negotiations for the sake of negotiations."         

The Saudi plan, first proposed in 2002 at a Beirut summit of the Arab League, offered a way to end the Israeli-Arab conflict by offering Israel normalized ties with the Arab world in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugees’ issue. Israel has never formally adopted a position on the plan.

Saudi Arabia is a lynchpin of US efforts to keep in line countries it regards as Arab moderates as it seeks to counter Iran’s nuclear program and growing influence in the Middle East. The kingdom’s enormous oil resources place the country at the center of the world’s energy economy while the fundamentalist brand of its state-sponsored Islam has made it a breeding ground of global terrorism.

As monarch, Abdullah’s successor will play a critical role in steering the kingdom during a particular sensitive time for the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, which last month reached a deal to buy $60 billion of US military hardware, is at the forefront of US efforts to contain Iran militarily. In Lebanon, Riyadh has taken the leading role in backing the pro-Western March 14 movement against Iran’s Hizbullah allies. Washington also counts on Saudi Arabia’s influence to bring other Arab countries to back Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Technically, Crown Prince Sultan, the minister of defense and aviation, is heir to the throne. But Sultan is not much younger or healthier than the king. Sultan has spent the last two years in the US and Morocco receiving treatment for cancer, according to foreign diplomats. On Sunday, he returned to Saudi Arabia to replace Abdullah in his absence.

Even if Sultan formally ascends the throne, Nayef, 77, will likely manage Saudi affairs. Minister of the interior for the past 35 years, he was promoted to deputy prime minister in 2009, signaling his key role when the post-Abdullah era comes. Nayef is considered more conservative than both his half-brother King Abdullah and full-brother Crown Prince Sultan. 

"In King Abdullah's absence, Prince Nayef will be the de facto main manager," Gerd Nonneman, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the University of Exeter, told The Media Line. "Prince Sultan is in no position to manage the kingdom."

Abdullah is traveling to the US for treatment after a blood clot complicated a slipped spinal disc, the state Saudi Press Agency reported Monday. It didn’t say when he would be back.

Saudi Arabia is governed quietly, new stances evolve slowly and with little transparency. Nonneman said that whatever Nayef’s personal views may be, he won’t lead a counter-revolution against the relatively liberal policies of half-brother King Abdullah. Foreign policy in Saudi Arabia is a product of negotiation between the kingdom's powerful princes, commonly referred to as the Sudairi sons, and not a one-man decision, he said.

"Saudi Arabia's fledgling social reforms may slow down, but they will not be reversed," Nonneman added.

Nayef was born in the city of Taif in 1934, becoming governor of the capital Riyadh at the age of 20. Nayef has served as the kingdom's Minister of Interior since 1975 and has played a pivotal role in combating Al-Qaeda following its attacks on oil facilities and ex-pat housing complexes in Saudi Arabia since 2003.

Many experts consider Nayef to be the most conservative element in Saudi Arabia's political elite. Following the September 11 on the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Nayef surprised Westerners by saying that Jews were behind the strikes, rather than the15 Saudi nationals indentified by US investigators. In 2009, he said he saw no need for female lawmakers in the Saudi political system, pooh-poohing the need for elections at all.

"If he becomes king, Nayef will have to take into consideration the reforms that took place in Abdullah's era," Muhammad Al-Masri said. "The main characteristic of Saudi politics is gradual, not dramatic, change." 

Still, Nayef’s conservatism could be a headache for US policymakers, who have lauded Abdullah for depicting Muslim extremists as "deviants" rather than proper Muslims, Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in a policy paper last week.

“Encouraging Riyadh to maintain these positions has become an important policy objective for the Obama administration, even if it is still a work in progress: this week the State Department criticized the continued presence in Saudi textbooks of offensive references to other religions,’ Henderson said.

But the question of succession is far from resolved. In a 2009 report titled "After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia," Henderson argued that prince Sultan will almost certainly take the thrown when Abdullah dies, appointing Nayef as his successor. Nayef, however, is likely to succeed Abdullah if ailing Prince Sultan, who some say will not survive the year, dies first.  

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