Waiting for the New Saudi Crown Prince

As Saudi Arabia mourns the death of Crown Prince Sultan, Prince Nayef patiently hopes for another promotion.

Saudi Arabia’s longtime defense minister and crown prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud passed away in a New York City hospital over the weekend, raising concerns among Saudi watchers of a succession process that could result in a resurgence of conservatism in the world’s leading oil state.

Crown Prince Sultan, who was probably in his mid eighties, born in an era when dates or birth weren’t usually recorded in Saudi Arabia, battled health problems for most of his life.

His condition was thought to be grave in the minds of American diplomats stationed in Saudi Arabia who sent cables back to Washington raising concerns about Sultan’s health. Indeed, Sultan’s death is not exactly surprising to those who have been watching the inner dynamics of the Saudi royal family in detail. In 2009, the United States embassy in Riyadh claimed that the next in line to the thrown was largely “incapacitated by illness,” unable to perform his duties as the oil kingdom’s top defense official. Sultan was also rumored to be battling cancer — the disease medical officials attributed to his death last week — but government employees in the kingdom kept this news under wraps for most of his illness.

Although Sultan was frequently overshadowed as crown prince by his half brother, King Abdullah, he is often credited by the Saudi royal family and regional analysts for building up the Saudi military and modernizing its warfare equipment. From the time Sultan was tapped to be the defense minister in 1962 until his death, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia experienced a rapid quantitative and qualitative growth in its armed forces. It was ordinary for the Sultan-led Defense Ministry to purchase bulks of military hardware from the United States, projected to be worth in the billions of dollars. Most of the planes and helicopters that the Saudi air force uses were purchased from Washington under Sultan’s direction. The partnership not only improved Saudi Arabia’s military posture in the Gulf but also strengthened its strategic alliance with the United States.

After three days or mourning, the Al Saud will quickly be put to work on the succession process. The crown prince is the second highest position in Saudi Arabia, so King Abdullah will likely concentrate most of his energy on naming his potential successor fast enough to preempt questions from outsiders about the royal family’s internal unity. The top choice is Prince Nayef, the interior minister who was chosen by Abdullah in 2009 to be the second deputy prime minister, a formal position that is commonly referred to as the second in line to the thrown.

Like so much about the Al Saud, the beliefs of Prince Nayef are often kept in secret. American and Saudi analysts generally view Nayef as a staunch social and political conservative. In contrast to King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan, Prince Nayef is seen by most as closer to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious establishment, giving him a head start over other candidates with impressive religious credentials.

Nayef’s four decades of experience at the Interior Ministry could serve the kingdom well at a time of tremendous upheaval in the Middle East. Nayef, 77 years old, is recognized by the United States and other Saudi allies in the Middle East as the man responsible for killing, arresting, intimidating and expelling scores of Al Qaeda fighters from Saudi soil, most of whom found refuge in neighboring Yemen.

Nayef is not without criticism. Women’s issues are a particular thorn in his side. He has stated that it is unnecessary for women to serve in the Saudi government despite recent attempts on King Abdullah’s part to expand the franchise to include women.

A few months after 9/11, Nayef blamed Zionists for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, refusing to admit that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi citizens. American officials don’t particularly care for the prince’s record on democracy either — protests for better governance and social services in the country’s Eastern Province were crushed after a single day. His ministry saved the Kingdom of Bahrain from being swallowed up by its protesting Shia majority. Nayef is also keen on blaming the kingdom’s problems on foreign elements with Iran often being cited as the hidden hand encouraging Saudi Arabia’s religious minority to challenge the Al Saud monarchy.

Ultimately, Prince Nayef will only be promoted to crown prince if King Abdullah and his Allegiance Council approve. But with Nayef boasting his seniority over 20,000 other princes, it would be the ultimate surprise if he passed off for another candidate.