Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Saudi Arabia: A Step Backward

by Ed Husain
October 28, 2011

Saudi Arabia's newly-appointed crown prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz attends a news conference in Mecca in this December 26, 2006 file photo (Ali Jarekji/Courtesy Reuters).

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.


  • Posted by Nervana

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more . However, constitutional monarchy and reforms are alien vocabularies as far as Saudi Monarchy. Sadly , they managed to reach some sort of accommodation with policy makers in DC. Both sides are not keen to change the status quo because somehow it is mutually convenient. The only hope for Saudi Arabia is its young activists who will gradually grew and challenge the old fashioned medieval ideas. only then the Royal family may try to decode these alien vocabularies.

  • Posted by Sarah A.

    Constitutional monarchy and reforms are not alien vocabularies if you’ve lived in the Kingdom. Reforms have been taking place, albeit at a slow rate, since the past two decades ever since King Fahd, and later, with King Abdullah.

    The debate over constitutional monarchy is a much more controversial one that isn’t supported by most people within the Royal Family, and those that do support it, aren’t allowed to voice their opinions. One case in point would be Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz who initially campaigned for expanding civil rights and formulating a constitution. He was exiled.

    For those of us who know Nayef, it isn’t good news. With Saudi Arabia’s new anti-immigration policies that aim to replace expatriates with inexperienced Saudi’s, a hardliner like Nayef is bad for even non-Saudi’s (who enjoy relatively more freedom than women in the country).