Another Elderly Hardliner Named as Heir to Saudi Throne
(Update: Saudi Arabia on Monday announced that defense minister Prince Salman will be the new heir to King Abdullah’s throne. President Obama welcomed the appointment: “I had the pleasure of receiving him at the White House this April and know that he is a man of deep faith who is committed to improving the lives of the people of Saudi Arabia and to the security of the region.”)
(CNSNews.com) – The death of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud removes from the line of succession a hardliner opposed to the tentative domestic reforms introduced by his half-brother, King Abdullah, including the extension of limited voting rights for women.
But the man thought most likely to replace him as heir to ailing King Abdullah’s throne is not seen as especially liberal, either.
Nayef, who died in Geneva on Saturday at age 79, played a key security role in his capacity as interior minister, a post he held for more than three decades. His body was flown home, and Sunday’s funeral in Mecca was attended by Muslim mourners including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement Nayef had “devoted his life to the security of Saudi Arabia and its fight against extremism,” calling him “a key and valued partner for the United States.”
Nayef’s death comes just eight months after he was named heir to the throne of the world’s number one oil producer, following the death of then Crown Prince Sultan, the kingdom’s 80 year-old veteran defense minister.
Abdullah, who is around 89, will again have to name a successor from the surviving sons of the kingdom’s founder, Abdul Aziz bin Saud.
The prince thought most likely to get the nod is the one who became defense minister after Sultan died, Prince Salman. Like virtually all senior members of the Saud family, Salman is elderly (76) and has health problems. He underwent spinal surgery in the U.S. in 2010 and has reportedly suffered at least one stroke.
In 2006, Abdullah created a body to help with issues including succession, in a bid to avoid a repetition of intrafamily rivalries in past decades. The 34-member Allegiance Council comprises the sons and grandsons of bin Saud, the so-called “second” and “third” generations.
When the king named Nayef to succeed Sultan, members of the Allegiance Council pledged their support, although it was not clear whether they had any actual say in the decision.
At some point, experts expect the advanced age and health issues of the second generation will necessitate the elevation into a succession position of one of the third generation. Abdullah’s son Mitab – head of the National Guard – and Nayef’s son Mohammad – a senior interior ministry official – are frequently seen as potential frontrunners in this group.
The upheavals in the royal family come at a time of turmoil in the broader region – civil war in Syria, instability in Yemen and Bahrain and an unpredictable situation in Iran.
Abdullah has sought to defuse domestic demands for “Arab spring”-type reforms through a combination of spending packages focusing on jobs and a decision to allow women to vote in municipal elections with effect from 2015.
Like Nayef, Salman, who served as governor of Riyadh for almost 40 years before becoming defense minister late last year, is also viewed as conservative in outlook.
Ali Alyami, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, said Sunday that if Salman were to be appointed crown prince, “he will be much worse than Nayef based on his record and adamant opposition to any kind of reform.”
At the same time, Alyami said that with the deaths of his two “powerful” brothers in just eight months, Salman was “very vulnerable, now more than ever.”
Former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan, posted to Riyadh shortly after 9/11, mentioned during a 2009 Washington Institute forum that Salman had told him on his arrival that the terrorist attacks had been a “Zionist plot.”
“The Saudis by and large could not simply believe that 15 of their sons had hijacked these airplanes and done what they had done. They were literally in denial,” Jordan told the forum.
“It is true that Prince Nayef felt that perhaps this was some sort of Israeli plot – the Israelis are a frequent source of speculation in that regard. It is true that Prince Salman also told me that he thought perhaps it was a Zionist plot at the time.”
Jordan said CIA briefers had then been dispatched to share intelligence with top Saudis on the al-Qaeda attacks.
In a 2007 U.S. Embassy cable later leaked to media an American diplomat reported on a meeting with Salman and some of the views expressed by the prince.
Among other things, Salman had said democratic reforms could not be imposed on Saudi Arabia because – for reasons he said were social, not religious – there would be negative reactions.
According to the cable he also called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the core problem in the Middle East, stated that there were fanatics in all religions – and that Jewish and Christian extremism had fed Islamic extremism – and claimed that women have better rights under Islam.
Demands for reform in Saudi Arabia were underscored by Sunday’s first anniversary of a campaign by women to break the ban on driving in the kingdom. On Friday the Women2Drive campaign urged women to mark the anniversary by taking to the wheel again, but following the death of Nayef – who helped to enforce the ban – a spokeswoman said the action would be postponed until next Friday, June 22.
Whoever eventually Abdullah chooses will not only rule the world’s biggest oil exporter, but also inherit the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” a reference to the Ka’aba in Mecca and the Mohammed mosque in Medina, the most revered sites in Islam.