I was in Saudi Arabia when King Fahd died in 2005. There was genuine remorse among Saudis young and old at the passing of the king. Portraits of the king covered car windows for weeks—a spontaneous and unprecedented outburst of Saudi national grief. There was also hope that the new king, Abdullah, would help bring Saudi Arabia into the twenty-first century. That dream ended yesterday with the appointment of Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as crown prince, or de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia as King Abdullah continues to undergo hospital treatment for his declining health condition.
In the corridors of power in Washington, DC, and London there was some relief that Prince Nayef, as expected, had become crown prince. In contrast, young Saudis on Twitter, Saudi democracy activists, and vocal women were filled with foreboding as to what lies ahead in their country. Granted, Nayef has been a vociferous enemy of al-Qaeda elements inside Saudi Arabia and eliminated hundreds of operatives, while arresting thousands since 2003. But this was not because he opposed jihadi ideology or Islamist thinking. His public attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood come not because he differs with their brand of Salafi Islam, but because they seek to undermine the House of Saud.
It was the same Nayef that after 9/11 said the attacks were a Jewish plot and “the Saudis [were] being framed” because fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were revealed to be Saudi.
He only turned against al-Qaeda because they started attacking Saudi oil pipelines, ministries, and embassies within the Kingdom.
As interior minister, the same Nayef persecuted thousands of democracy activists across the country, blocked efforts for political reform, discriminated against Shia minorities in the east, and continued to subjugate Saudi women.
Western policymakers who think Nayef is good news because they can continue to count on Saudi support for countering al-Qaeda and undermining Iran will commit long-term mistakes if Nayef is not pushed toward reform.
Nayef’s basic instinct is the survival of the House of Saud. He sees Saudi Arabia’s religious police and other establishments under his control as a means for consolidating the Saudi monarchy. Just as al-Qaeda and jihadis are a threat to the monarchy, so are democracy activists. Western diplomats interacting with the crown prince would do well to remind him that the long-term survival of the House of Saud can only come in the form of a constitutional monarchy and ongoing reforms. Refusal to change only threatens and weakens the monarchy. In the coming months in Riyadh, it is the language of survival that will matter most.