Saudi Arabia: Second Deputy Prime Minister

The long-time interior minister, Prince Nayef was unexpectedly appointed to the post of second deputy prime minister in late March 2009.  That promotion gave him a leg up on the competition to replace Sultan, reportedly dying of cancer, as crown prince and eventually, king.  Much of the evidence suggests that Nayef has less enthusiasm for domestic reform than King Abdullah (or Sultan), but that the difference is largely one of degree.  Likewise, although Nayef’s unabashed sympathy for the cause of Palestinian statehood (and for militant groups such as Hamas) would likely complicate both bilateral relations with Israel and the broader regional peace process, his hawkish stance toward Iran represents an important point of common ground with both Israel and the US.

The fact that Abdullah did not immediately appoint a second deputy prime minister upon ascending to the throne created uncertainty as to who was next in the line of succession after Sultan.  The most reasonable explanation seemed to be that the king wanted to avoid strife with the Sudairi faction by allowing Sultan to choose his own successor upon taking the throne.  A core assumption of that explanation is that Sultan had made it known to Abdullah that he did not want to be succeeded by Nayef, who by virtue of his age and experience would have been the logical candidate to fill the spot.

Indeed, Nayef is a controversial figure.  Although he has in recent years won praise for his ministry’s crackdown on terrorist cells in Saudi Arabia, his close association with the most extreme elements of the Saudi clerical establishment has been a frequent source of both diplomatic headaches for the kingdom and tensions among members of the royal family.  One incident in particular—Nayef’s claim that Israel was behind the September 2001 attacks on the US, whose perpetrators included 15 Saudi nationals—ensured that his placement in line to one day take the throne would cause discomfort in western capitals.

It is doubtful that the Allegiance Council would push for an alternative to Nayef without the support of the other four Sudairi brothers, who include Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh, and Prince Ahmed, the youngest of the Sudairis and Nayef’s long-time deputy at the Ministry of Interior.  That said, it is still too early for Nayef to begin preparing for his coronation.  The younger members of the Allegiance Council outnumber the older princes by 19–16, and while they are unlikely to take the bold step of promoting one of their own for the position of crown prince, they could seek to accelerate an eventual generational transfer of power by backing a younger candidate from among the sons of Abdul Aziz.  Prince Salman is himself a possible contender for the throne, and is generally seen as more reform-friendly than Nayef, a factor that could make him a more preferable candidate among like-minded princes and members of the Allegiance Council keen to ensure favorable ties with the US.

However, as things currently stand—and assuming Abdullah does not die before Sultan—Nayef stands a good chance of becoming king.  In light of reports of Abdullah’s weakening condition, Nayef may even assume the duties of the monarch within the next year, taking on the role of de facto ruler, just as Abdullah did after Fahd became incapacitated in the mid-1990s.