The death Saturday (June 16) of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz is likely to have little short-term impact on the economic or political life of the kingdom or on its international relations. But it does accelerate the inevitable transition to a new generation of rulers who may have very different ideas about how the al-Saud should rule their people, deal with their neighbors and manage the critical relationship with the United States.
Nayef was born in 1933 or 1934, before the discovery of oil, in an era when Saudi Arabia was an impoverished backwater important to outsiders only because of the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. He had no formal education, but with his brothers and half-brothers, he managed the kingdom’s transformation into a computerized, air-conditioned modern state that is a powerful force in the global economy.
There is no way to know what kind of king Nayef would have been. Before being designated heir apparent, he was the country’s no-nonsense top cop, who controlled the police and border security forces and the secret tribunals that have prosecuted thousands of suspected al-Qaeda members and sympathizers over the past decade.
His overall influence within the ruling family, however, was believed to have gone beyond his job description because he was one of the so-called Sudairi Seven — the sons born to the favorite wife of the kingdom’s founder, Abdul Aziz al-Saud. King Fahd was one of them, as was the late Prince Sultan, longtime defense minister and crown prince, whom Nayef succeeded as heir apparent only last year. With the passing of Nayef, the seven are down to four, including the logical candidate to replace him as crown prince, Salman, currently the minister of defense. The youngest of the seven, Prince Ahmad, was born in 1940.
Under Saudi law, the king must be a son or grandson of Abdul Aziz. Age is an important consideration in establishing the line of succession, but not the only one. The family council that sets the line is directed by the law to choose “the most upright” of the candidates, a qualification that leaves considerable room for maneuver and negotiation. King Abdullah who is not a Sudairi — issued a law that makes him the last ruler with the sole power to designate a successor; the law says future kings may nominate one, two or three candidates, and a panel of 35 senior princes can accept one of them or reject them and propose its own candidate.
Because Abdullah is still alive, this process has never been tested. He can select the next crown prince unilaterally; the easy choice would seem to be Salman, the defense minister since last year and long-time governor of Riyadh. But after that, nothing is certain as the list of eligible sons continues to dwindle at an accelerating rate and prominent members of the “grandsons’ generation” — including Nayef’s son Mohammed — jockey for position.
King Abdul Aziz had 36 sons, according to a compilation by Gulf States Newsletter, so the roster of grandsons nominally eligible to become king is extensive. Many, however, have taken themselves out of the sweepstakes by making careers in business or religion and avoiding the prominent government positions that have enabled others to show themselves to the public and build constituencies.
No one outside the royal family really knows who might be in the running, but veteran students of Saudi affairs have compiled lists. These generally include Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, commander of the National Guard; Nayef’s son Mohammed, who is credited with day-to-day management of the successful campaign against the al-Qaeda insurgency; Prince Mohammed bin Fahd, governor of the Eastern Province, and Prince Khalid al-Faisal, governor of Mecca province and a son of King Faisal.
It might seem logical that these men, better educated than their fathers and ore familiar with the outside world, would be less socially restrictive and more open to political reform, but some Saudi intellectuals fear that the opposite could be true: the sons of Abdul Aziz, men born before oil, can remember humble beginnings in an egalitarian culture. The grandsons, born rich and always pampered by a system that has enriched them further, may be even less receptive to political liberalization.
Whoever emerges over the next few years to lead the grandsons’ generation into their time in power is unlikely to jettison the economic policies and international partnerships that have built up the kingdom and kept it safe. No one is running for king on a policy of scrapping the strategic alliance with the United States. The main differences, if any, are likely to appear in domestic issues such as the role of Islam in public life, the growing ability of citizens to organize via the internet, and the increasing pressure to open the job market to women.
It is never a good idea for Saudis to discuss the royal succession in public, but in the past month, as the seriousness of Nayef’s illness became public knowledge, some academic and business leaders in Riyadh ventured into those tricky waters.
Some expressed the view that competition among the most powerful grandsons could result in the selection of a lesser known, weaker candidate who would not be threatening to any of them but who also might be ineffective in addressing the country’s myriad problems. Others said that the royal family’s collective memory of the open power struggle between King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal in the 1950s, which threatened to bring down the monarchy, will compel the princes to resolve the succession issue in private and put on a unified public face.
Whether either view is correct may not be known for a few years if Abdullah selects yet another of his half brothers as heir apparent and postpones the transition to the grandsons yet again. But the death of Nayef after only eight months as crown prince has brought that day of decision unavoidably closer.
Thomas W. Lippman is the author of Saudi Arabia on the Edge:The Uncertain Future of an American Ally.