The House of Saud and Succession: The Nayef Appointment



Saudi King Abdullah’s sudden decision to promote the interior minister Prince Nayef, 76, his half-brother from the rival Sudairi clan, to second deputy prime minister, follows a logical path. This places him in direct line to the throne as the incumbent Crown Prince defense minister Prince Sultan appears to lie on his deathbed. It is important to point out that the Nayef appointment continues a tradition of defacto management practices by senior Saudi princes when one is ill- Prince Nayef has been helping oversee the government since Crown Prince Sultan had his relapse five months ago. This appointment makes his supervisory role official.


Many analysts are looking at Saudi succession issues with increasing interest. In the past last two weeks Prince Nayef has been very vocal about his views of the Kingdom’s future, the health of Crown Prince Sultan, and defeating al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. In several ways he has been announcing his platform. In the al-Jazirah daily, Prince Nayef stated that he sees no need for women members of parliament or elections. As regards to the advisory Shura Council, he said “Appointing the members always ensures that the best are selected. If it was to happen through elections, the members would not have had been this competent.” Asked if that could include women, he said: “I don’t see the need for that.” In Okaz, Prince Nayef addressed the condition of Crown Prince Sultan by explaining “The crown prince is in the best condition and he is in good health, all that remains to be done is the completion of simple procedures for him to leave the hospital soon.” Given that Nayef gave this comment from the bedside of Crown Prince Sultan in a New York medical facility, the situation boded ill.

At the same time Nayef also addressed current Shiite protests in the Kingdom saying that the Kingdom’s Shiite minority must respect Salafi Sunnism following February confrontations in Medina between religious police and Shiite pilgrims. He stated that there is no crackdown on Shiites in the Kingdom and that Shiites and Sunnis were arrested. “It is not a matter of targeting Shiites or others as much as it is a matter of dealing with anyone who breaks the law or tries to cause offense in the country, especially in the Two Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah.” Finally, Prince Nayef said Saudi Arabia had won world applause for its successful campaign to root out terrorism. “The Kingdom is in the forefront of countries that are capable of challenging terrorism and defeating its plots. Many foreign delegations have visited the Kingdom to learn from our experience in fighting terror. Many militants have abandoned their deviant ways after attending counseling programs.”

Next Step: The Allegiance Committee

Officially, Nayef remains only one of a number of princes in the royal family who could become crown prince. In 2006, King Abdullah created a new mechanism, the Allegiance Committee, comprising 35 princes, to decide along with the king who is named crown prince. The chairman of the Allegiance Committee, Prince Mishal bin Abdulaziz, and a first generation senior royal, plays a key role in the supervising and building of consensus. If and when Crown Prince Sultan passess away, the first meeting ever of the Allegiance Committee will occur to confirm Nayef’s additional title.

Prior to the new rules, kings and crown princes were chosen by secret family meetings of uncertain structure. On one occasion in 1964, such a conclave deposed King Saud who was deemed unsuitable by his brothers. In 1992, King Fahd declared that the monarch alone should choose the crown prince. Now, future crown princes will have to be approved by the Allegiance Committee made up of Ibn Saud’s sons, the eldest sons of the brothers who have died since Ibn Saud’s death, as well as the sons of the current king and crown prince. The decisionmaking will occur in secret and may or may not rely on the support of the power ministries. According to the documentation, the king will suggest three candidates; in the event of disagreement, there will be a vote. Apparently mindful of the precarious health of some of the princes, the new system also calls for a temporary council of five princes to lead the country if neither the king nor the crown prince is deemed fit to rule for medical reasons — though defining such ill health could be a tool used by other princes who feel that they are not being heard.

An Unusual Open Complaint

It is important to point out that Prince Nayef is the closest of any senior al-Saud to the radical religious elements of Saudi society. He used his connections as interior minister for negotiations with al-Qaeda leaders and their associates in the Saudi clerical establishment to follow the diktat of the Royal Court. Nayef is expected to be the most conservative of any Saudi monarch to date if he succeeds to the throne.

Nayef’s reputation regarding the slowing or stopping of reform is causing an uproar among senior Saudi princes who reject his views, and, his appointment. Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, who has been outspoken for his desires for greater reforms in Saudi Arabia, said directly to King Abdullah that he needs to make sure the appointment served purely an “administrative purpose.” He stated: “I call on the royal court to clarify what is meant by this nomination and that it does not mean that he (Prince Nayef) will become crown prince. The latest nomination of the second deputy prime minister will give the impression that he will automatically become crown prince.” Significantly, Talal’s open challenge signals the beginning of a public rift that will shine light on Saudi leadership trends including any meeting of the Allegiance Committee.


The implications of the appointment and the future needs to be thought out. First and foremost is the age issue. Without diving into speculation it should be considered that if succession runs the course of the qualified first-generation princes, then there may be many changes ahead; one might even argue similar to the interregnum during the Andropov-Chernenko period under Soviet rule. This may signal, for instance, that after Prince Nayef will then be Riyadh Governor Prince Salman, another aging prince. The second generation of Saudi princes may have to wait a long time for their candidacy to the throne.

Second, is Nayef’s foreign policy outlook. If he becomes crown prince and later king, Nayef may be able to help the Obama administration to open doors for ending the AfPak problem by using leverage with Islamic radical institutions and circles close to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will be dramatic change. Whereas Abdullah, the reformer, was more open to accepting the Jewish state, Nayef will lean more towards backing Hamas and other extremist Palestinian elements. Moreover, Prince Nayef regards Iran as a foe and is ready to fight the expansion of Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf than the more accommodating King Abdullah. Cooperation and accommodation may give way to more confrontation especially if Iran develops a nuclear weapon. With Nayef as either the monarch or crown prince, a Saudi nuclear weapon will not be far off. In regards to the Arab Gulf states, the possibility of tensions grow with Nayef’s appointment because of previous episodes of the Interior Ministry’s tough stand on border demarcation involving energy routes and infrastructure.

Overall, Nayef will still defend the Kingdom at all costs and will continue to rely on many outside defense contractors and suppliers to guarantee safety and security. He will also slow down reforms dramatically thereby raising anxiety with the West.

* Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director, Research and Development at the

Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) Dubai, UAE

Comments are closed.


Discover more from Middle East Transparent

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading