New Saudi Crown Prince: Friend of the Wahhabists
by Ryan Mauro
On October 23, Crown Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia passed away, replaced by Prince Nayef. He has a fierce reputation, striking fear into the hearts of Al-Qaeda, Iran, Israel and liberal Saudis alike. King Abdullah, is possibly as old as 88, is in poor health and has just recovered from his third back surgery. The time when Nayef becomes the King of Saudi Arabia is drawing near and everyone but the Wahhabists are worried.
Nayef is a firm ally of the Saudi Wahhabists whose networks and ideology contributed to the rise of Al-Qaeda. In 2003, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer demanded that the Saudis fire Nayef because of his "well-documented history of suborning terrorist financing and ignoring the evidence when it comes to investigating terrorist attacks on Americans."
As Interior Minister, though, Nayef has been a nightmare for Al-Qaeda, particularly once the terrorist group shot itself in the foot with its May 2003 bombings in Riyadh. After that, the Saudi government seriously cracked down on Al-Qaeda within its borders. In November 2002, he stated that Saudi support for the Muslim Brotherhood was a mistake, as "All our problems come from the Muslim Brotherhood." Nayef also ridiculed the religious establishment in October 2008 for "miserably" failing to counter extremism.
Of course, Saudi clerics still, to this day, preach extremism of the worst kind. The Saudi Royal Family targeted Al-Qaeda out of its own self-interest and because Al-Qaeda kills many Muslims, alienating it from otherwise similar-thinking jihadists. Nayef is also a foe of Iran, accusing the regime of fomenting unrest among Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority. He is thought to have influenced the Saudi decision to militarily intervene in Bahrain to put down protests by the majority-Shiite population.
These facts do not change the fact that Nayef is an extremist himself and is an ally of the Wahhabist religious establishment. He led the Saudi Committee for Support of the Jerusalem Intifada, which channeled support to jihadists fighting Israel. Shortly after 9/11, he said the U.S. had become "an enemy of Arabs and Muslims." He is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, saying in 2002 that Al-Qaeda carried out the attacks with Zionist support. He stood by this opinion in 2004, claiming that "Al-Qaeda is backed by Israel and Zionism." In Nayef's world, an attack by Al-Qaeda on Saudi Arabia is actually an Israeli attack on Saudi Arabia.
Saudi funding to Islamic extremists and terrorists outside of the Kingdom still flows under Nayef's watch as Interior Minister. In a December 2009 State Department memo published by Wikileaks, Secretary of State Clinton writes that Saudi donors "constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide" and is "critical" to Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Taliban and others. Former CIA case officer and expert on Saudi Arabia, Robert Baer, told me in December 2010 that Nayef was funding terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon and Baluch militants in Iran and elsewhere.
The liberal elements of Saudi society protesting for reforms like allowing women to drive and vote view Nayef as a threat. As Interior Minister, a post he still holds, [he protects] the religious police [that] have cracked down on facilities like hotels where Western culture penetrates the Kingdom. He has opposed King Abdullah's reforms and is against allowing women to drive. His Interior Ministry has imprisoned three young documentarians for releasing a film on the Internet about poverty in Riyadh.
Most experts agree that Nayef is unlikely to sever Saudi Arabia's relationship with the U.S., simply because American support is needed for the Royal Family's survival and the two countries share adversaries. Still, it is quite probable that he will increase Saudi sponsorship of the spread of Wahhabist ideology outside of Saudi Arabia and refuse further concessions to the youth. Stephen Schwartz of the Center for Islamic Pluralism told me a year ago that there could be "serious social upheaval" once he becomes king and tries to put down challenges from the reform-minded youth. In his opinion, the rigidity of Nayef will backfire and precipitate the Arab Spring's full arrival in Saudi Arabia.
The death of Crown Prince Sultan and ascent of Prince Nayef is part of another problem that the Saudi Royal Family faces: Old age. Nayef is 78 years old, has severe diabetes and reportedly, cancer. His brother and probable successor, Prince Salman, also is of old age and has health issues. The top leadership is quickly dying off. There are plenty of Royal Family members to replace them, but in short order, there will be a dynamic generational shift in the Saudi leadership. The Wahhabists will fiercely fight against the inevitable changes that come to the country, branding the Saudi reformers as apostates. Sooner or later, the Saudi leadership is going to have to break with one side.
Prince Nayef's ascent is a victory for the Wahhabists. He may be a foe of Al-Qaeda but the problem of radical Islam is much bigger than Al-Qaeda. Prince Nayef is part of that problem, not the solution.
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