What was the significance of naming Prince Nayef as second deputy prime minister of Saudi Arabia?
SUSRIS provided an exclusive interview with Professor Jean-Francois Seznec to put that question in context. Today we are pleased to share the perspective of Alex Schindelar of
writing this week in Energy Compass. We thank Energy Intelligence for permission to share Mr. Schindelar's analysis with you.
Saudi Arabia: Succession Steps
The naming of Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz as Saudi Arabia's second deputy prime minister put to rest three years of speculation about this influential position -- historically held by the heir-in-waiting but deliberately left vacant under King Abdullah's succession reforms. As is typical with the kingdom's opaque royal politics, long-time observers do not agree whether Nayef is now a shoo-in to be the next crown prince, but there is a general consensus that he is at least one step closer.
Circumstance required Abdullah to appoint a "caretaker" head of state before he left the kingdom on Mar. 29 for the Arab League summit in Qatar and the G20 summit in the UK. With the ailing Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, who holds the title of deputy prime minister, still recovering from surgery abroad, the constitution requires the designation of the next-in-command as acting ruler, which would fall to the unfilled post of second deputy prime minister. King Abdullah had pointedly not named any of his half-brothers (he has no full brothers) to that position, traditionally reserved for the second in line to the throne. Instead, he announced in 2006 the formation of the Allegiance Commission -- a group of 34 princes tasked with selecting future kings and crown princes. This, in effect, broke "the link between second deputy prime minister and succession," explains a foreign observer in the kingdom.
Under the new rules, it is hazy if Nayef's promotion means he has the full backing of the royal family to become the next crown prince. The Allegiance Commission did not meet to decide the appointment, sources in the kingdom say -- a fact underlined by the public call by outspoken senior royal Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz for clarification that the move was merely "administrative" and "does not mean that he [Prince
Nayef] will become crown prince." Indeed, the move may simply be practical --
Sultan's health was becoming a real
concern, the kingdom needed an acting head of state when Abdullah was absent, and Interior Minister Nayef was the ranking senior royal with a powerful cabinet portfolio. "He's in charge of security -- if I was going out of the country, I'd put him in charge," commented one diplomat.
Several other analysts, citing top-level sources in the kingdom, attach more significance to the move. Nayef and his full brother Salman -- members of the influential
"Sudairi Seven" faction -- have for years been regarded as front-runners to be named as the next heir. As full brothers to Sultan and the late King
Fahd, they have carved out a powerful bloc in Saudi Arabia's royal politics. One source, who knew of Nayef's impending promotion weeks ago, said part of the deal was to reduce the size and power of the interior ministry, which has swelled under Nayef's stewardship, especially as it took on domestic militants in recent years. Others suggest the appointment was the result of warming relations between Abdullah and the
Sudairis, after a tumultuous period in which Abdullah ruled as crown prince between King Fahd's stroke in 1995 and his death in 2005.
Nayef's promotion may also reflect a degree of meritocracy -- a reward for outperforming his full and half brothers. After a rocky start in dealing with the problem of local militants, Nayef -- along with his son Mohammad bin Nayef -- has executed an effective campaign to dismantle Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while creating an effective reeducation program to bring former militants back into the fold. Few other contenders have had such high-profile success in a cabinet role during Abdullah's tenure. Even
Salman, the governor of Riyadh, still answers to Nayef in the line of command. "To be king.. ..the most important qualification is administrative experience," says one US-based expert.
Pundits have already started combing through Nayef's past to assess his likely inclinations as king, particularly his attitude toward the West. Some cite his conspiracy-laced comments after Sep. 11, 2001, denying that the attackers came from Saudi Arabia, or statements in support of keeping women out of politics. They express concern about his conservative leanings, with some predicting Nayef would roll back King Abdullah's reforms. Others insist that his policies in running the interior ministry -- as he has since 1975 -- would not necessarily be followed if he were king. Plus, they point to Nayef's even-handed treatment of Sunnis and Shiites in a recent flare-up in Medina, as well as his effective clampdown on Al-Qaeda. The latter, a priority for the West, should be enough to win Nayef friends in Washington, they say.
One observer suggests that Nayef should be able to garner sufficient support from both conservative and liberal camps in Saudi Arabia for his candidacy. Nayef is in his mid-70s and his health could be an issue, but he is thought to be in acceptable shape compared with the other contenders from his generation.
• SIGNIFICANCE: King Abdullah has taken bolder steps this year, including a significant cabinet reshuffle in February and the appointment of Prince Nayef as second deputy prime minister -- potentially a step toward becoming the next crown prince.
• CONTEXT: The Allegiance Commission, which many say has never formally met, was supposed to be the new mechanism for choosing the next crown prince after Sultan. If Nayef has been earmarked outside that process, the committee's role in deciding succession would be greatly diminished.
• NEXT: Crown Prince Sultan, who is in his 80s, remains in New York following surgery for what is thought to be cancer. He checked out of the hospital on Apr. 1, but is not expected back in the kingdom until May. The Allegiance Commission does not need to confirm Nayef as second deputy prime minister, but would need to approve his elevation to crown prince.
Energy Compass: April 3, 2009
Author: Alex Schindelar, Dubai
Reproduced with permission of Energy Intelligence, www.energyintel.com.