One of Saudi Arabia’s most conservative Princes has moved closer towards the throne, casting a shadow over the Kingdom’s tentative reforms.
Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, the interior minister and a half-brother of King Abdullah, has assumed second place in the line of succession. His appointment as second deputy prime minister places him next in line after Crown Prince Sultan.
Because King Abdullah is about 84 and the Crown Prince is of the same vintage and in poor health, this makes Prince Nayef highly likely to succeed to the throne. He will take temporary charge of Saudi Arabia while the King attends the G20 summit in London and Crown Prince Sultan recovers from surgery in New York.
Prince Nayef, who at 75 is a relatively youthful member of the royal family’s senior circle, is a deeply controversial figure. Shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, he was sceptical about the involvement of any Saudis and publicly suggested that “Zionists” were responsible. But he adopted a tough line against al-Qaeda after the kingdom was rocked by a series of attacks in 2003 and 2004.
Prince Nayef’s elevation has caused a rare public split in the royal family. Prince Talal, a noted reformist, asked the King for assurances about the succession. “I call on the royal court to clarify what is meant by this nomination and that it does not mean that he will become Crown Prince,” said Prince Talal.
“The latest nomination of the second deputy prime minister will give the impression that he will automatically become Crown Prince.”
The Saudi government is dominated by sons of the nation’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud. The row over Prince Nayef shows the tension surrounding King Abdullah’s gradual reforms. Among his more signficant steps has been the appointment of the first female minister and the sacking of the unpopular chief of religious police.
Prince Nayef, however, is from the other end of the spectrum. He opposes the King’s modest changes, saying last week that he was against open elections for the Shura, or advisory council, and there was no reason to allow women to join. A diplomat said that Prince Nayef, who has been interior minister since 1974, could block future changes. “There is a lot of speculation that this is a reaction against the reforms. Perhaps his influence rises with his new position, but his influence has always been there,” he said.