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The death of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef and the quick installation of his full brother Salman in the role highlights once again that the country's leadership still rests with the first generation of Saudi rulers. This is done to manage a delicate status quo, putting off real questions of succession for the next generation of the House of Saud.
After less than eight months as Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Nayef Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud died on 16 June 2012. Within 24 hours Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was named as the new Crown Prince, shoring up succession in the short term. The more pressing question, however, concerns the jump to the new generation of leader, which cannot be far away given the age of the King (late 80s, possibly early 90s) and Crown Prince (76). This concern is compounded by the dwindling number of potential candidates available of Nayef's and Salman's generation. Salman is, like Nayef, one of the key Sudairi members of the elite. However, the once dominating 'Sudairi Seven' as they were known are now the Sudairi four and as a generation shift approaches, the weakening of Sudairi power potentially opens up opportunities for other factions at a critical period in Saudi Arabia's modern history.
Nayef, the conservative pragmatist
Will Nayef's legacy be retained? He represented an important pillar of policy within Saudi Arabia. Nayef was the twenty third son of Abdulaziz Bin Saud (or 'Ibn Saud'), the revered founder of the current Saudi state, and the half-brother of King Abdullah. He was one of the influential Sudairi brothers, born of the most important mother of Ibn Saud's children, Hussa bint Ahmad Al Sudairi. After being groomed in various important roles, he became the Minister of Interior in 1975. This position gave Nayef substantial power and prestige and he expanded its purview exponentially. In March 2009 Nayef became the Second Deputy Prime Minister and in October 2011 he became the Crown Prince with the de jure reality finally catching up to his de facto powers.
His reputation is that of a fierce conservative. Though there is no doubt that he has been an arch proponent of the Saudi Arabian line against the Shia in Bahrain and has been deeply involved with various crackdowns in eastern Saudi Arabia over the years, this reputation is somewhat overblown and it is better to see him as a staunch pragmatist and conservative, rather than a zealous religious conservative.
Similarly, Nayef is arguably best known for his efforts leading counter-terrorism efforts as Al-Qaida turned its attention to the Kingdom from 2003 onwards. Though Nayef's reaction certainly had its harder elements with waves of arrests and an increase in training and preparedness for Saudi's Special Forces, it was more nuanced that it is often credited. Notably, there was also a strong push from Nayef - using his ties with the clerical establishment - to cast the terrorists as revolutionary, anti-Muslim murders. He also offered terrorists a way out. There were widely publicised recantations of terrorist dogma and sporadically successful rehabilitation programmes. Additionally, he offered the opportunity for terrorists to meet the head of counter-terrorism at the Ministry of Interior - Mohammed Bin Nayef, his son - to personally swear allegiance to Saudi Arabia once more; a tactic that nearly cost Mohammed's life in 2009 when a terrorist sought an audience with explosives secreted within himself.
Abroad, Nayef has had an important role for many years. Despite his conservative nature, he has engaged in various overtures or at least discussions with Iran over the years, and was believed to be one of the key proponents behind Saudi Arabia's troop and armament deployment to Bahrain in 2011. So too on Yemen, Nayef took the lead building up extended patronage networks to keep Yemen relatively under control.
Though Nayef is portrayed as some kind of arch-conservative (which is true in certain circumstances) in terms of reforms, it must not be forgotten that he presided over one of the key emancipatory actions for women in modern Saudi history: the imposition of ID cards. This allowed women to, by themselves for the first time, open bank accounts and sign up for University education. Though admittedly this was in the interests of security rather than for women's freedoms, it nevertheless highlights that he was willing to be pragmatic when necessary.
Crown Prince Salman
Crown Prince Salman is the former Governor of Riyadh and Defence Minister since November 2011, a title he has retained. A body called the Allegiance Council, established in 2006 to advise on such changes, is expected to sanctify this decision in the coming days.
Recently, Salman has been one of the busiest and most visible top-Royals and is the natural choice. In terms of policy, his persuasions are not widely known, though it is believed that despite a spot of 9/11 conspiracy theory hawking, he is not a one-eyed conservative and is favoured by America. Following on from Nayef's pragmatism, Salman is likely to be pragmatic in the role and like those before him he will pursue long-term Saudi interests; personality is important but the machinery and inertia of Saudi Arabia's eternal policy is enduring and slow to change.
The Enduring Saudi Problem of Succession
The key question now is who - if anyone - will be made Second Deputy Prime Minister. Nayef himself took this position in 2009 making him third in line to the throne, but no one was so appointed in 2011 when Nayef became Crown Prince. All the sons of Ibn Saud are now in their seventies at least and there are only a few viable candidates with the right mix of health, lineage, popularity, power, and political acumen. Prince Sattam the Governor of Riyadh and Prince Ahmed, the new Minister of the Interior, are arguably two such leading candidates.
Yet even with the best health-care in the world (which the Saudi Royals avail themselves of in America, the UK, and Switzerland) these potential Kings are only temporary stop-gaps. The real test and the least understood concern in Saudi Arabian studies is when and how leadership will be given to the next generation.
The passing down the line of Ibn Saud's sons proved to be fraught enough at times, with three factions in particular (the Faisal, the Sudairi, and Abdullah's group) engaging in often bitter contests for power. Yet the ramifications of dropping down a generation are huge. The Allegiance Council should provide at least a private forum for discussions if not a guarantee of a smooth transition. Each of the key centres of power in the recent past - King Abdullah, former Crown Prince Nayef and Sultan, Foreign Minister Faisal - have their own candidates (their sons and close relatives) whom they have been grooming and inculcating with powerful positions for years now.
Presumably, there will need to be some kind of a mechanism that ensures that all factions are represented at the highest levels unless a weak King is deliberately selected, as some rumours have been suggesting recently in the Kingdom. In Kuwait, theoretically at least, Emirship swaps between the two sides of the Al Sabah household. Such an accommodation could be reached between King Abdullah and the Sudairi block, with the Faisals being given significance elsewhere. Yet in reality elite politics in Saudi Arabia is as opaque, secretive, and personalised as classical Kremlinology. The outside world will just have to wait to see what transpires and how the change is managed; unfortunately for Saudi Arabia and its elite, that wait might not be that long.