Washington woke on Saturday to the news of the death of Crown Prince Nayef, who was next in line for the Saudi throne. The collective sigh of relief by senior U.S. officials was almost audible -- even though, within hours, President Barack Obama issued a statement about his "great regret" on learning the news.
The president emphasized the positive. Under Nayef's leadership of the Interior Ministry, the statement said, "the United States and Saudi Arabia developed a strong and effective partnership in the fight against terrorism." Obama also noted that Nayef had "strongly supported the broader partnership between our two countries."
There was no mention of the stark reality: Nayef was renowned for being difficult and unimaginative, only able to view policy options in terms of choices that worsened problems rather than eased them. His support for the kingdom's religious conservatives during his decades in office had arguably only added to jihadi extremism. He labeled Shiites in the Eastern Province protesting at their lack of rights as "acting at the behest of a foreign country," thereby provoking a confrontation with Iran rather than side-stepping it.
One took on Nayef at one's own peril, so few did. He was outraged when Abdullah, upon becoming king in 2005, failed to make him second deputy prime minister, a slot seen as "crown-prince-in-waiting." Abdullah had wanted to limit the power of his brother princes in the so-called Sudairi faction, whom, he felt, had spent decades undermining him. Nevertheless, he found himself having to appoint Nayef's full-brother Sultan as his own heir apparent -- as the largest group of full-brothers in the royal family, Abdullah just could not ignore the Sudairis.
But Nayef bided his time, waiting for Saudi Arabia's creaky succession system to work in his favor. He dutifully managed his portfolio at the Interior Ministry and, by 2009, with Sultan's health declining as well as the king's, was finally awarded the second deputy prime minister title. When Sultan died of cancer last October, Nayef's own real opposition was a couple of older brothers who could be discounted as political nonentities.
Along with Nayef, there probably also dies media interest in the escapades of one of his ex-wives, Maha al-Sudairi, who was stopped earlier this month as she was leaving a Paris hotel in the middle of the night, along with a personal retinue of 60 and attendant luggage, without settling the $8 million bill. (Princess Maha has something of a track record for this sort of behavior but the incident dwarfs an earlier tale about her selection of $100,000 worth of lingerie, which went unpaid for.)
Simon Henderson, the Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is the author of After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia.
The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on June 18th, 2012.
(Also read: “The Underestimated Prince Nayef” by Michael Stephens, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute based in Qatar.