The Saudi-ruled kingdom is heading for turbulent times. It faces challenges on both external and internal fronts. No, there is no imminent threat of a military invasion from abroad. It is the invasion of ideas that is scaring the living daylights out of members of the House of Saud. The kingdom cannot remain immune from the winds of change ushered in by the Islamic awakening that are sweeping the region. Three dictators have been dispatched into the dustbin of history. The House of Saud may be illegitimate but its members are no fools. They can read the writing on the wall. Their fears of being swept from power are well founded.
While they grapple with the winds of change sweeping the desert trying to prevent their tents from being blown away, they face an even more serious problem internally: that of age of the senior royals. There is no cure for old age, and disease that usually accompanies it. On October 22 Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz died of colon cancer in New York. He was 85 and it is the first time that the crown prince has died before the king himself. King Abdullah is 87 and not in the best health either, despite having a daughter who is only 7 years old. He underwent multiple back surgeries in New York last year and is now carted around in a wheelchair, but only for very important meetings. Otherwise, he remains bedridden.
When Sultan died, Abdullah elevated Interior Minister Nayef to fill the post of crown prince. What this means is that upon the king’s death, Nayef will assume the throne, according to the Saudi constitution, which was promulgated in 1992 by King Fahd (died 2005) who dishonestly claimed that it was based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh). One is constrained to ask: what ayah of the Qur’an or hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) says that upon the king’s death, the brother next in line becomes king? Even more basic, is the monarchical form of government allowed in Islam?
While the appointment of Nayef as crown prince may appear routine, he is a controversial figure. He too is fairly advanced in age — nearly 79 — and suffering from leukemia and diabetes. Prince Salman, governor of Riyadh for 50 years, was given the defence portfolio that became vacant upon Sultan’s death. He will be assisted by Sultan’s son Khalid who had served as de facto defence minister during his father’s prolonged illness, as his deputy. Salman is 76. With all senior princes advancing into their eighties and suffering from multiple ailments, often cancer, the future of the House of Saud looks bleak.
Most important posts in the kingdom are occupied by members of the House of Saud as if talent, like the kingdom’s oil wealth, is the monoply of the ruling family. But this poses a dilemma leading to rivalry and jealousy among the hordes of princes. In order to overcome the problem, King Abdullah established an Allegiance Council (2007) charged with choosing the next king. Comprising the army of “princes”, this body may not work as smoothly as anticipated since rivalry between the children of different brethren is intense. It cannot be ruled out that upon Abdullah’s death, bloody conflict may erupt among the ambitious royals. Their worst tribal instincts may get the better of them causing serious infighting.
The first rumblings of discontent erupted into the open in March 2009 when Abdullah appointed Nayef as Second Deputy Prime Minister. Prince Talal ibn Abdul Aziz, one of Nayef’s half-brothers (it must be keep in mind that Abdul Aziz sired 37 children from 22 wives!) called for clarification in issues of succession. Talal rightly feared that it gave Nayef unfair advantage. In recent years, Nayef has frequently chaired cabinet meetings because of the absence of Abdullah and Sultan due to illness. With Sultan now safely lodged on the other side and Abdullah on his way there soon, Nayef will act as de facto ruler. Even before his elevation to the post of crown prince, Nayef’s pictures had appeared in various government departments alongside those of Abdul Aziz, Abdullah and Sultan.
Nayef was also elevated to the post of deputy prime minister while retaining his long-held and important portfolio of interior minister. He has been interior minister since 1975 when his brother Fahd vacated it upon becoming second deputy prime minister. Nayef’s influence has expanded into all corners of Saudi domestic policy including Hajj-related matters and with his new appointments it will allow him to partake in the development of foreign policy as well. As interior minister, Nayef controls 130,000 security personnel that he leverages to ward off challenges from other equally ambitious “royals”.
It is, however, his views on reform that are likely to increase resentment against him when he becomes king. Nayef is very close to the obscurantist clergy in Saudi Arabia that have dug in their heels frustrating any attempts at reform and stubbornly clinging to the notion that women should not be permitted to drive. Nayef agrees; he is also a hardliner and it was he who prevented women from getting the right to vote in the 2005 municipal elections. According to an announcement by King Abdullah, women will get this right in 2014 but by then Nayef may be at the helm of affairs and it is unlikely he will countenance any such concessions to women that according to him must not be seen in public. He is equally averse to conceeding any rights to the people.
A glimpse into Nayef’s thinking can be gleaned from an episode of eight years ago. In 2003, he summoned a small group of dissidents to his office in Riyadh. At the time Abdullah, who was crown prince but the country’s de facto ruler because of King Fahd’s illness, was willing to entertain their demands in a series of “dialogues”. Not so Nayef. When the group was ushered into his office, he told them bluntly: “What we won by the sword, we will keep by the sword.”
This was not mere bluff. Within a year, several leaders of the reform movement, including academics like Abdullah al-Hamid and Matrouk al-Faleh, had been arrested for their activities. As de facto ruler of the desert kingdom, Nayef is expected to clamp down even harder on any demands for more rights. He insists on using the sword. But he should know that people that live by the sword, also often die by the sword.
It is also possible that Nayef may not even live to be king. After all, there is no guarantee of life. Sultan was 85 but he died before the 87-year-old Abdullah. Since Nayef is suffering from leukemia, his days on earth may be shorter than he may imagine. Whether he dies or lives to become king, the chances of him being the last ruler of the kingdom are quite high. Few would mourn the end of the most obscurantist regime in the Muslim world that has desecrated the sanctity of the Haramain and perverted the pristine principles of Islam with their narrow-minded interpretations. Their other contributions have been to stoke the flames of sectarianism in the Ummah and total subservience to the avowed enemies of Islam.