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The October 22 death of Crown Prince Sultan -- Saudi Arabia's first deputy prime minister, minister of defense and aviation, and King Abdullah's heir apparent -- and his replacement days later by Prince Nayef is another minor chapter in the long saga of Saudi succession. It happened smoothly and without much drama. Abdullah apparently selected Nayef, his 78-year-old half brother, for the post himself. He did not use the Allegiance Council, which he created in 2006, to assist in the selection of the crown prince or king and only informally consulted the senior princes on the decision.
Even before Sultan's death, Nayef, who has served as interior minister for 37 years, was the favored choice to replace him. He was named second deputy prime minister in 2009, although King Abdullah was rumored to be unenthusiastic about promoting him at the time, since Nayef and his six full brothers, who are sons of the founding king's favorite wife, are considered a challenge to the authority of Abdullah, who is only a half brother. Still, the only other contender for crown prince was Prince Salman, the Governor of Riyadh province, who met the suitability requirements but is younger than Nayef. Salman has reportedly been selected as Defense Minister and could become second Deputy Prime Minister, the stepping stone to Crown Prince.
Nayef's role in government will depend on how Abdullah chooses to use him -- much like an American vice president. Abdullah has used the crown prince quite actively in the past, even allowing Sultan to temporarily take the reins of government when he has been incapacitated, for example, in 2010, when he travelled to the United States for surgery. There were even times when both the elderly king and crown prince were on medical leave, and Nayef held executive authority.
Nayef assumes his new seat at a time of incredible stress for the kingdom. Saudi Arabia's elderly leadership has to cope with instability in Yemen, Iran's risky nuclear behavior, uncertainties about who will lead Egypt, Syria, and Libya, and worries about the United States' staying power after it withdraws from Iraq and then Afghanistan. Moreover, even after Osama bin Laden's death in Pakistan this spring, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still a danger, and no Saudi leader can be confident that he has eradicated extremism at home.
Nayef's responses to these challenges will likely be tough, shaped in part by the decades he spent protecting the Kingdom from internal threats as interior minister, a post he retains. After 9/11, the Saudis developed deradicalization programs for al Qaeda members released from incarceration in Guantánamo. Alongside art therapy classes and financial subsidies for those who gave up terrorism, the Saudi state used all means, including capital punishment, to deal with those who did not.
Nayef, a social conservative, is almost certainly less comfortable than Sultan with Abdullah's careful and calibrated liberalization of the social space. Abdullah has allowed mixed gender education at his flagship academic institution, the King Abdulaziz University for Science and Technology. He has permitted young women to participate in college recruitment fairs in Riyadh. And recently, he announced that women would be given the right to vote in the next municipal elections, in 2015. Nayef will not be able to roll back these initiatives, but he would be responsible for responding to any unrest they caused, and could use forces under his command to reimpose order.
Given Abdullah's health and declining capabilities, it is not implausible that Saudi Arabia will see a King Nayef in the near future. If the succession happens while the Arab revolts are still ongoing, Nayef would likely continue the Saudi strategy of resisting at all cost any spillover effects. Some have said that reforms in Bahrain could help nudge the other Gulf monarchies to some modest liberalizations of their own. But this would not be Nayef's inclination; his accession to the throne could slow even further the glacial palace response to citizens' demands for more participation in national life.
Likewise, this transition does not represent the handing of the baton to a new generation -- from the sons of the kingdom's founder, including Abdullah and his brothers, to the grandsons, where more than 20,000 princes wait to climb the royal ladder. Indeed, there could be several more kings named "bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud" before the younger generation takes over. More than a dozen sons of the late kings Faisal and Fahd, as well as sons of Abdullah, Sultan, and Nayef, are in deputy minister or provincial governor positions today. Many nervously anticipate that generational shift, but it need not be a source of trouble. The royal family has demonstrated its capacity to manage these passages with little fanfare or social unrest.
Of course, the choice of Nayef as crown prince might still lead to a turning point for Saudi Arabia, if only by forcing, eventually, a reckoning between the status quo forces and those who seek change. Still, to use a rough analogy to the Soviet era, it is important to not focus exclusively on the reshuffling of the chairs closest to the throne. One recalls the analysis of the placement of gray figures on the viewing stand in Red Square and the realization, too late, that the power struggles at the top were not the only, or the truest, determinant of the country's future.
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