The Middle East Channel

Keeping it in the family

The naming of Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud as Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince was no great surprise, but has nonetheless highlighted ongoing questions about the generation gap in Saudi Arabia, and about the capacity for the country’s political system to evolve in a changing Middle East. Prince Nayef, who has been the Interior ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The naming of Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud as Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince was no great surprise, but has nonetheless highlighted ongoing questions about the generation gap in Saudi Arabia, and about the capacity for the country’s political system to evolve in a changing Middle East. Prince Nayef, who has been the Interior Minister since 1975 and who was appointed to the second deputy prime minister in 2009, had long been seen as the most likely successor to the previous crown prince, Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud. After King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud, Prince Nayef is the most senior of the surviving sons of the country’s founder, King Abdel-Aziz, who passed away in 1953. Saudi Arabia has had five kings since then, all brothers. Of course, this generation is aging; Prince Sultan was at least 83 when he died and Prince Nayef is 78. One of the biggest questions about Saudi Arabia’s future is how it will manage the transition to the next generation of princes. King Abdel-Aziz had 37 sons; the grandsons are far more numerous.

As interior minister, Prince Nayef already has a significant power base; his ministry oversees most of the well-funded internal security, paramilitary, and intelligence forces, including the public security forces, civil defense, border guards, the special security forces, and the religious police. However, authority over the security forces is divided, preventing anyone from having total control and thus reducing the risk of a coup; there is a regular army that reports to the Ministry of Defense, and a separate National Guard that reports directly to the king. The interior ministry also has extensive patronage networks because it is a major employer with a large budget. Indeed, one sign of Prince Nayef’s growing power came in March when the king announced that 60,000 new jobs would be created in the interior ministry as part of a massive program of new government spending that was estimated by the Saudi investment advisory firm Jadwa to be worth SR 500 billion ($133 billion) over several years. This boost to the number of people on the interior ministry payroll can also be seen as an expansion of Prince Nayef’s personal patronage network and power base.

Despite the scripted succession, a wide range of reformist groups, including women’s rights campaigners, liberals, human-rights campaigners, and activists from the country’s Shia minority are concerned about the growing power of one of the country’s most politically conservative princes. For instance, Mohammed Al-Qahtani of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association said Prince Nayef does not have reformist qualities and that the country would lose out by appointing a hardliner.

This concern may be warranted. Crown Prince Nayef has said in the past that he does not see the need for women to vote, and he has recently blamed unrest in the Eastern province on foreign intervention, ignoring the longstanding domestic grievances around the political marginalization of the Shia population there. Nayef’s supporters in Western capitals suggest that as king he would adopt a less conservative approach than is required by an interior minister, but this is likely wishful thinking.

The consequences go beyond Saudi Arabia. The country could become increasingly out of sync with a changing Arab region. While seniority remains extremely important in Saudi politics, other Arab countries are being dramatically altered by new youth-led social movements. Recalling that Prince Nayef became interior minister before Hosni Mubarak even came to power in Egypt,  the vast majority of the population in Saudi Arabia is less than half the age of Prince Nayef. The Arab monarchs that currently hold out the most promise of political reform — those of Morocco and Jordan — are men in their forties who both came to power in 1999. Almost no one of Prince Nayef’s generation remains in top positions in the Arab world; the exceptions include the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Sayed Al Sayed, who came to the throne in 1970, and the prime minister of Bahrain, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who assumed his position upon Bahrain’s independence in 1971.

Indeed, there is a widespread view in Bahrain that Prince Nayef was a key force behind the Saudi intervention there earlier this year. The entry of Saudi (and UAE) troops to Bahrain in March was officially part of a GCC drive to protect the ruling Al Khalifa against a foreign plot. It was also a clear demonstration that Saudi Arabia would not tolerate people calling for a republic in the GCC, and as such was a warning to Saudis as well as to Bahrainis. However, the groups calling for a republic in Bahrain were a minority. The mainstream opposition sought a constitutional monarchy with a stronger parliament — and an elected prime minister. The Saudi intervention in Bahrain did not just support the ruling family. It directly protected the prime minister from the risk that the opposition would strike a deal with some of the ruling-family reformists to remove him from power as a step towards a new political era. Such a move would have set an unwelcome precedent from the point of view of a senior Saudi prince such as Nayef, poised to take the crown prince title.

Prince Nayef is also seen as a leading force in Saudi policy towards Yemen. Traditionally, Prince Sultan had led on Yemen policy, but his illness had been limiting his role for some time. Meanwhile, the interior minister has been concerned with the possible risks that Yemen could pose to Saudi national security, particularly through the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula militants based there. One of these militants, a Saudi national, tried to assassinate Nayef’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the assistant interior minister, in 2009. Prince Nayef approaches Yemen mainly through a counterterrorism lens — not unlike the U.S.

Additionally, there remains the question of who will succeed Prince Sultan in his other role as the minister of defense. This is one of the top ministries in the country and represents a major power base for whichever prince heads it. One option would be the long-serving vice-minister of defense, Abdulrahman bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud, a brother of Prince Nayef and half-brother of the king. Alternatively, media reports on Monday claimed that Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud, a half-brother of King Abdullah and Prince Nayef, and the current governor of Riyadh, would be the next defense minister. Prince Salman is regarded as more liberal, is said to be popular among younger princes, and is himself relatively young by Saudi government standards, being merely in his sixties.

Another option might be to elevate one of Sultan’s sons, Prince Khaled, who is already the assistant minister of defense. Such a move would be an important transfer of power to a next-generation prince. But this would place added pressure on other senior princes, including Prince Nayef, to seek further advancement for their own sons. Another of Prince Nayef’s sons, Prince Saud bin Nayef, formerly ambassador to Spain, joined the interior ministry in July as an advisor to his father.

To help manage the complicated transfer of power to the next generation, King Abdullah has set up a council of senior princes to advise on the succession in the future. According to a 2006 law, this Allegiance Council will ultimately have the right to reject the king’s nomination for crown prince and to suggest an alternative if a majority of its members are agreed. Legally, it also has the power to remove a king if an independent team of medics finds him to be incapacitated. The law establishing this council stated that it would not come into effect until after the current king. The Saudi state media reports suggest that it was briefly consulted on Prince Nayef’s succession, but it seems not to have had any lengthy debate; presumably there was already sufficient consensus.

In the future, given the advancing age of the current generation of senior princes, the council’s ability to remove a king for medical reasons could be an important tool. But overall, the Al Saud family has a big incentive to maintain consensus and avoid damaging splits over succession issues — lest this encourage their growing young population, who have been watching the regional developments on satellite TV and YouTube, to challenge the entire concept of family rule.

Jane Kinninmont is the Senior Research Fellow on the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a UK-based policy research institute. She can be followed on twitter @janekinninmont.

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