Saudi Crown Prince Nayef Dies, Succession Becomes Complex

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Saudi Arabia has a new heir to the throne. King Abdullah today named his half-brother, Prince Salman, as the new Crown Prince. The previous heir was buried yesterday. Crown Prince Nayef died in Geneva recently. He was in his late '70s and was Crown Prince for only eight months. Author and journalist Thomas Lippman has covered the Middle East for more than 30 years. He says the Prince who just died was a powerful man.

Thomas Lippman: Nayef was one of the most senior sons of the founding kind of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud. He was a intimate part of the closely held ruling circle for the past 40 years and had been Minister of Interior since the 1970s. He was also one of the seven Princes known as the Sudairi Seven because they were the sons of King Abdul-Aziz's favorite wife. Nayef had a reputation as a no nonsense law enforcement officer. He controlled the police and the security forces and through them wielded an awful lot of power in the kingdom. Now Prince Nayef had been the Interior Minister of Saudi Arabia since 1975. He lead the crackdown some Americans may remember on al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia after 9/11, but he was also a conservative Muslim, kind of dedicated to the traditions of Wahhabism, which is the same doctrine that spawned Osama bin Laden. Was it a complex equation for Prince Nayef policing a group of people who he had some loose affinity with?

Lippman: Look, pretty much everybody in Saudi Arabia is a conservative Muslim and certainly pretty much everybody in the ruling family. The interconnection between the type of conservative Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the Jihadist violence that has erupted is a long complicated story. But Nayef was responsible for suppressing and controlling the extremist uprising that broke out in the kingdom in 2003, and remember, that the first target of al-Qaeda and its allies and like-minded rebels was the House of Saud itself, the royal family itself. So they didn't take any nonsense from the al-Qaeda people; and Nayef and his son, Muhammad bin Nayef, were the instruments of the crackdown.

Werman: Prince Nayef was also the first Saudi official to publicly confirm that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi. Why was he willing to make this statement?

Lippman: But he was also the first and most prominent Saudi to say that the Zionists were responsible for 9/11.

Werman: So how do you sort that out? I mean he's saying…

Lippman: Well, you can't sort that out except to say that Nayef was not the senior Saudi Prince to whom one looked for shall we say rational and complicated analysis of events. He was a cop.

Werman: There's been a lot of talk about Prince Salman, who is he?

Lippman: Prince Salman is one of the most senior Princes. He was a full brother of Prince Nayef. Salman was the governor of Riyadh and the Province of Riyadh for many, many years and became the Defense Minister upon the death of his brother last year.

Werman: And what do Saudis think of Prince Salman, does that make a difference?

Lippman: Well, first of all…it doesn't make much difference. He's not a reviled figure, he's not unpopular as far as I know. He's very much part of the inner circle of the ruling establishment and he seems to be a sort of good natured fellow except when he's not.

Werman: And when is he not?

Lippman: When there's any kind of threat or challenge to the ruling family…he has a narrow range of tolerance for differences of opinion on the subject of who should run the country and the scope of their authority.

Werman: If Salman becomes King how's that gonna shape US-Saudi relations do you think?

Lippman: I don't see much effect on the relations. The US-Saudi relations have weathered every difference in opinion and every crisis since the 1940s. The two countries need each other and absent some kind of completely unpredictable set of events, I don't see that there's going to be much difference. The strategic outlines of the relationship are likely to remain stable and they're pretty well set.

Werman: Thomas Lippman with the Middle East Institute, thank you very much.

Lippman: My pleasure.