Saudi Arabia-watchers are buzzing about the sudden, surprise appointment of Prince Nayef, the long-time Interior Minister, as the Second Deputy to King Abdullah. The appointment seemingly put Nayef in direct line to the throne, given the severe illness of Crown Prince Sultan, and has provoked some rare public protestations by other potential contenders for the throne. The Saudi-owned media, suddenly and magically full of extravagant praise for the visionary "conquerer of terrorism", is no help. So I asked my friend and keen Gulf-watcher Greg Gause what he thought about it. Here's his answer:
On Prince Nayef and the Succession: Nobody Knows What It Means
By F. Gregory Gause
Prince Nayef (Image: AFP)
The appointment of Prince Nayif
as second deputy Prime Minister in Saudi Arabia could be an important
move. It is certainly an unexpected move. It caught me out.
But we should beware of jumping to conclusions about it. The
internal workings of the Al Saud are particularly opaque. Gossip is
everything in court politics, but 90% of it turns out to be wrong.
I do not think that this appointment settles the issue of succession. If it actually comes to appointing a new Crown Prince, we have the as-yet untried process of the Allegiance Council to get through. That puts a wild card into the process, potentially. We should also note that another prominent possible Crown Prince, Gov. of Riyadh Prince Salman (full brother of Nayif), is not a member of the cabinet, so appointing him second deputy PM would have been a more drastic move.
In fact, this appointment could be occasioned by something as simple as the King’s travel schedule. He wants to be in Doha for the summit; Crown Prince and First Deputy
PM Sultan is in New York (convalescing or dying, depending upon which
rumor you prefer). So to leave the country Abdallah had to deputize
somebody to be in charge. Maybe Nayif said, “as long as you
are at it, make be second deputy prime minister.” So we could be
getting excited about something that does not have long-term consequences.
That said, this is a promotion and does improve Nayif’s standing in
the succession game.
Trying to figure out what Nayif "really" thinks about issues is particularly hard. In the post-9/11 period he was depicted by some as leaning toward the more hard-line salafi position. Perhaps this was because of some of his unfortunate comments about 9/11 itself. His ministry was caught unprepared for the al-Qaeda campaign in the kingdom itself (Nayif just a few weeks before the May 2003 attack on the housing compounds denied that there was any al-Qaeda presence in the kingdom itself). Although I do not know this for a fact, there were stories going around that he took off for an extended stay abroad during the height of the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula campaign, presumably in reaction to criticism within the family of how he was handling it.
But his ministry certainly turned their performance around, got on top of the AQAP phenomenon and by 2005 were taking the fight to the "deviant trend." (Many in the West give high marks to Muhammad bin Nayif, deputy minister, for this turnaround.) Nayif also very publicly upbraided the ulama, on two public occasions in recent years, for their laxity in dealing with the phenomenon of extremism in the country, along the lines of "the security forces are doing their job, why aren't you doing your job?" So one wonders if the earlier speculation about him being close to hard-line salafis is true.
His recently stated position on women does not really reveal that much, it seems to me, in terms of his more general political views. As I recall, his statement was that there would be no need for women in the Shura Council. As far as I know, nobody was putting that one forward as a near-term possibility. Women's issues are a football in Saudi Arabia which men kick around. Nayif clearly is signaling an appreciation for social conservatism that is, unfortunately, pretty main stream in Saudi society, particularly in Najd but not absent elsewhere. His social conservatism is real, I assume, given that the most liberal member of the family, Prince Talal, took the unusual step of publicly reminding everyone that this appointment does NOT mean that Nayif will become crown prince.
My impression, and this is just an impression based on superficial observation, is that Prince Nayif has strongly held opinions, some of which will not endear him to Washington (about democracy, for one). But I remember that for years it was commonly accepted among Saudi-watchers that Prince Abdallah was "anti-American" and "close to the tribes" and thus very conservative. So much for that as an indicator of how he would govern. There are major constraints on a Saudi king regarding the relationship with the US. If 9/11 did not fracture it, I doubt that Nayif becoming king (not that I am forecasting that) would.
One other reflection, which is particularly superficial -- Nayif is small in stature. Every Saudi king of the current period has been a relatively tall fellow, with the possible exception of King Khalid (I don't remember how he measured up physically). They had an imposing physical presence -- tall and regal (Faysal) or just plain BIG (Saud, Fahd). Abdallah is a big guy as well. Would the Al Saud put forward a relativey short man as king? I don't know, but I throw this out for speculation.