The death of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud, who assumed the role less than eight months ago following the death of his brother, forces the kingdom to grapple with another shuffle in its top leadership at a time when regional instability is at a peak. Television and radio stations based in the Arab Gulf have suspended all regularly scheduled programming for wall-to-wall Quranic prayers or televised tributes during a period of mourning.
Nayef, who was about 77, was said to be in “good heath” by the deputy interior minister earlier this month and was scheduled to return after leaving to Switzerland in May for medical tests and a private vacation. Known to be more conservative than his half-brother King Abdullah, Nayef controlled the Interior Ministry since 1975 and has repeatedly frowned upon reforms he deemed too liberal for the kingdom, such as granting women the right to drive. He pioneered Saudi counterterrorism efforts and was intensely involved in police and intelligence activities. The 89-year-old king is likely to select recently appointed Minister of Defense Prince Salman as successor.
Salman, who is only a year younger than Nayef, formerly served as governor of Riyadh, the capital. “He is not healthy either,” notes Sultan al-Qassimi, an independent analyst based in the neighboring United Arab Emirates. “He has suffered from a stroke and has in gone for extensive medical tests.”
In the midst of sweeping calls for reform across the Arab world, Saudi Arabia’s octogenarian leadership has struggled to meet the demands of its youth and minorities, while adhering to the conservative ideals expected from the religious center for 1 billion Muslims. Regional instability has caused a spike in crude prices—a blessing for some oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest—which were forced to boost spending last year to placate protesters. Demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s biggest economy, failed to materialize last year as citizens were offered pay increases and $67 billion for housing and funds for military and religious groups. It fearfully announced a $36 billion handout within days of the resignation of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak.
“On the domestic side, reformers will have a collective sigh of relief because Nayef was an individual who pushed for more conservatism in the kingdom,” said Theodore Karasik, a Dubai-based security analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Salman is known to be a less conservative, but the problem that arises now is that there are no obvious candidates from that generation in al-Saud family to succeed him. This will be the biggest challenge both he and King Abdullah face if they want to continue their family legacy.”
Saudi Arabia’s economic and social concessions, regarded as revolutionary for the kingdom, have only gotten it so far. Citizens continue to challenge the conservative norms on everything from foreign-ownership laws and salary increases to a woman’s right to drive. “Succession in Saudi Arabia will be complex and potentially politically volatile over the coming decades no matter who takes over,” said Paul Sullivan, a professor of economics at National Defense University in Washington. “Saudi Arabia has significant unemployment issues. The problems with the Shia in the northeast near the major oil fields, not far from Bahrain, remain.”
While the oil-rich Eastern Province, home to many of Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslims, remains volatile, the kingdom managed to crush any challenge to its authority via anti-Iran, anti-Shia religious rhetoric and Western-trained, Western-supplied security forces. In March last year, Saudi-led forces from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council were sent to Bahrain to help crack down on antigovernment uprisings. Saudi Arabia is home to about 20 percent of the world’s oil supply, with output of almost 10 million barrels per day, and a 16-mile causeway links it to Bahrain.
Analysts believe that Prince Nayef was among the leaders to push for intervention, fearful that a Shia uprising in neighboring Bahrain would embolden Saudi Shias to join in. “Nayef was very hands-on as interior minister and even as crown prince and with relation to events in the Gulf, particularly with regard to Bahrain, with regard to the uprising in Syria, he even met with Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s former head of intelligence,” said al-Qassimi.
Salman assumes his new role amid growing discontent among Saudi youth. About 60 percent of the population is younger than age 30, while the unemployment rate stands at 10.5 percent. Women have particularly voiced their alienation, with more than 78 percent of female college graduates in the kingdom out of work. In September, King Abdullah announced “cautious reforms” that included allowing women the right to vote and run for office in the advisory Shura Council. The decision inspired a number of political cartoons and social-media jokes noting that there will be no female votes since women can’t drive themselves to the polling station.
Saudi Arabia’s official succession council, the Allegiance Council, experienced a shake-up following the designation of Prince Nayef, after “liberal” Prince Talal bin Abdel Aziz quit without giving a reason. “Succession is in some ways more important than life in Saudi Arabia,” said al-Qassimi. “I hope that King Abdullah works with Prince Salman to strengthen the council and enshrine it with the proper authority.”
Prince Salman has the best “defense credentials and intelligence, and with his connections globally he is likely to be the chosen man,” added Sullivan. “However, Saudiology sometimes is like Kremlinology was during the Soviet times. It is hard to tell exactly where some of this might be going.”