DOHA — Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia's crown prince and interior minister, has died. His stint as the country's second-in-command was short -- only eight months, following the death of his older brother Sultan. Nevertheless, his passing brings into focus once again the key question of succession in one of the world's largest oil-producing states.
The rapid graying of Saudi Arabia's most powerful princes -- all sons of the kingdom's founder, Ibn Saud -- means that such decision points will occur with accelerating frequency. Although Nayef was the obvious choice for crown prince, constant worries over his health plagued his short tenure. Even though Nayef was some 10 years younger than his half-brother King Abdullah, kingdom-watchers knew from the beginning that there was a distinct possibility he would not outlive him.
While such transitions are intrinsically fraught, two factors suggest that the House of Saud will not be in disarray for long. Firstly, stability is the order of the day in the kingdom. The top Saudi princes attempt as best they can to reconcile factions within the family for the sake of regime survival whenever issues of succession arise. Secondly, given this evident fact, the Sauds are well aware of the problem of their aging senior royal family and have not ignored it. The ruling elite has taken Nayef's illnesses into account, and although a longer life would have made succession planning easier, his death will not radically alter Saudi politics or policy.
Indeed, some of the most important Saudi policy decisions are already being made by the top princes' sprier sons. In the Interior Ministry, it was largely the efforts of Nayef's son, Mohammed, that led to the massive modernization programs and restructuring policies that are currently taking place. Budget allocation, personnel changes, and policy priorities have for the most part been set on their course. The Interior Ministry is gigantic; the ship cannot be turned around simply because Nayef is dead. Indeed, so pervasive is Mohammed's influence that such a move would likely be impossible. Although Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, Nayef's full brother, has been promoted to head the ministry, the ministry will likely remain the de facto domain of the Nayef clan.
In the foreign affairs arena, Saudi Arabia is also locked into a set of policies that are the product of consultation among many royals, including the king, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, Intelligence Chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, Salman, Nayef, and other senior military officials and princes. In Bahrain, for instance, it wasn't only Nayef pushing the Saudi policy to send troops to prop up the faltering monarchy -- it was National Guard riot control units that entered the island, not Interior Ministry ones.
Similarly the recent push for a union of Arab Gulf countries, which could lead to closer integration with Bahrain, has been more at the insistence of the king and Saud al-Faisal. Though Nayef was openly supportive of the move, he was not its main champion. Saudi's interests in Syria or Iran will likewise not be drastically reformulated in light of Nayef's death; these policies have been developed as part of a prevailing consensus of which Nayef played only a part (albeit an important one). Nor will Nayef's death affect the overarching strategic "cold war" currently playing out between Saudi Arabia and its Persian foe.
This is not to diminish Crown Prince Nayef's achievements. His legacy is a well-developed internal security apparatus that has improved significantly under his tenure. Many have painted Nayef as a brutal oppressor, but the detail and rigor with which the Interior Ministry considers how best to minimize casualties and reform questionable security practices is incomparable to any similar body in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is by no means the perfect state, but it was never Nayef's job to make it so. He was merely charged to ensure that it remained internally secure and stable -- and this without doubt he achieved.
Nayef's single-minded determination to eliminate the threat of al Qaeda from the kingdom between 2003 and 2006 is perhaps his most notable achievement. His assumption of responsibility for securing the annual Hajj, a monumental task if ever there was one, also compares favorably with the historical record. While problems still exist, security has improved year upon year even as the crowds have grown ever larger and more difficult to control.