Nayef, probable heir to Saudi throne, is an enigma

Reputation as reactionary may be misleading, analysts suggest.

Nayef and Sultan 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed)
Nayef and Sultan 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed)
Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, who is expected to be named heir to the Saudi throne this week, has held public office for close to 60 years but except for those in the inner circles of the royal family he remains a mystery.
As the kingdom’s interior minister since 1975, Nayef has acquired a reputation for being a flinty conservative firmly opposed to democracy and women’s rights and quick with the whip to take on Al-Qa’ida, Iran or anyone else threatening his family’s rule. But observers of the Saudi scene say Nayef may be more a pragmatist than his record suggests and that he won’t stop the country’s plodding march to modernization.
“No king is going to step very far out of existing policy lines. No king since Feisal has had the kind of stature to changes the direction of policy and I don’t think Nayef has that either. He will be more in the style of consensus kings,” Gregory Gause, a Saudi expert at the University of Vermont, told The Media Line.
Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud ruled the kingdom from 1964 until his assassination in 1975.
An Allegiance Council of the ruling family was set up by reigning king Abdullah in 2006. It is expected to meet on Thursday – after a three-day mourning period for the previous crown prince Sultan - to approve Nayef as the new heir.
The current king, Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, is officially 87 but probably is somewhere in his 90s and more than a year ago began to curtail his activities because of his health. Thus, with his elevation to crown price, Nayef is one possibly a short step away from rule over the world’s biggest petroleum reserves and the West’s main bulwark against Iran.
For a figure who has been a decisive factor in Saudi rule for decades, little is known about Nayef. Details such as his exact date of birth and the number of children he has – much less his views on the role of Islam, women or human rights – are a matter of speculation. Indicative of his relative anonymity, at least in the West, is that his Wikipedia entry is less than 1,000 words, a third fewer than for Georgi Parvanov, the president of Bulgaria.
Joseph Kechichian, who has authored two books on Saudi succession, suspects Nayef has eight children by at least two wives. What is known is that his mother was legendarily the favorite wife of King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, which makes him a member of the most powerful faction in the royal family, the so-called Sudairi Seven.
Among the few peepholes into the private views of Nayef comes from an October 2009 US State Department cable published by Wikileaks. The cable calls him “elusive, ambiguous, pragmatic, unimaginative, shrewd and outspoken” but ultimately an enigma.
"His actions do not support the theory that he is a reactionary or actively working against the king,” it concluded.  “It would be more accurate to describe him as a conservative pragmatist convinced that security and stability are imperative to preserve Al-Saud rule and ensure prosperity for Saudi citizens.”
Analysts say Nayef’s reputation as a hardline conservative is mostly a function of the job he holds as interior minister. That puts him in charge of homeland security, the police as well as of the notorious religious police – the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – in charge of enforcing observance of the kingdom’s strict Wahhabi form of Islam.
A country where some of the most widely accepted standards of human rights are rejected as an affront to religion and tradition, Nayef has presided over crackdowns on everything and everyone one from Al-Qa’ida to women who dare to challenge the country’s ban of female drivers. In the government’s pushback prompted by the Arab Spring this year, Nayef has been the one to wield the stick of repression while Abdullah announced tens of billions of dollars in subsidies, jobs and other handouts.
That has led many ordinary Saudis, not to mention human rights advocates and political analysts, to say what you see with Nayef is what you will get.
“The certainty of Prince Nayef’s sinister reputation among the Saudi masses cannot be denied,” Irfan Al-Alwai wrote in a paper for the Hudson Institute this week. “If Prince Nayef is elevated to the status of crown prince, and then succeeds Kind Abdullah as ruler, Saudis, other Muslims and the world may expect a return of the kingdom to its old and worst habits.”
On the other hand, Nayef has avoided the violence employed by the Middle East’s despotic regimes in cracking down, relying instead on traditional tribal networks and the clergy to coax terrorists out of their extremism, Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior lecturer of Middle East history at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, told The Media Line.
“He operates in a very Saudi tribalist, personal way, which means that the minister of interior or his son would call a tribal sheikh or a father, and he’ll say, ‘Gee, we hear that your son is involved in these things and we’re very disappointed and we hope we can rectify these things,’” Teitelbaum said.
Nayef’s son, Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, was wounded in 2009 by an Al-Qa’ida suicide bomber who was meeting with him about entering the government’s rehabilitation program.
After 9/11, Nayef infamously supported a widely shared conspiracy theory in the Middle East that the attacks were a Jewish plot and insisted that it was impossible that most of the 19 hijackers could have come from Saudi Arabia. “The Saudis are being framed,” he told a news conference at the time.
But analysts say Nayef probably has a more pragmatic view of the world than his remarks imply and will preserve the kingdom’s longstanding ties with the US and the West, which it needs to ensure its defense and keep its oil industry running. Gause noted that Nayef’s Interior Ministry has cooperated closely on counter-terrorism with the US despite his 9/11 remarks “Nayef doesn’t have any qualms about cooperating with the US,” he said.
Washington and Riyadh have disagreed sharply over how to deal with the Arab Spring, with the US often backing opposition forces while the Saudis support the status quo. Teitelbaum said Nayef is certainly no friend of freedom and democracy, but like other Saudi leaders, he has little choice but to stay in the pro-West camp even if they have complained bitterly in public about America’s policies.
“To a great extent these are empty words,” Teitelbaum said. “At the same time they’re staying this they are signing more and more defense agreements with the US, which carry with them decades of trading. It’s not something you can break in a second.”