'Heir to the Heir' Gets an Upgrade

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Byline: Joseph Kechichian

New Crown Prince Nayef is more conservative than the ailing king--but will he make it to the monarchy?

Last month, after Saudi Arabia's octogenarian Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz succumbed to colon cancer, the country's ailing 87-year-old monarch moved quickly to install a new heir. Back in 2009, King Abdullah had settled upon Prince Nayef, current minister of the interior, as "heir to the heir," a nomination that surprised many because of Nayef's advanced age, as well as his ultraconservative policies, which have upset more-liberal voices within the ruling establishment. Saudi watchers think Abdullah selected Nayef to avoid internal family rifts--skipping a generation would have upset the current order, since several of the monarch's brothers are still alive (the Saudis pass the throne to brothers of the ruler before sons).

Nayef, a half-brother of the monarch, tends to be more conservative than the king, and their relationship has gone through ups and downs--often as a consequence of differences over security matters. Nayef's four-decade tenure at the Ministry of the Interior was a mixed blessing for the country, as he managed to cajole members of the religious establishment and the kingdom's various tribal leaders into accepting his tough security measures. While the king has accommodated Nayef's more hardline preferences, Abdullah has nevertheless pushed for significant reforms that tend to trouble traditionalists.

Though Nayef's dealings with the U.S. and other Arab nations have been characterized in negative terms, the prince is a genuine Al Saud--which means that he always places the interests of the family and the country ahead of other considerations. A stickler for detail, as interior minister he kept regular tabs on opposition figures. Fond of parliamentary gatherings, Nayef is good at listening to various opinions, taking his time to reach decisions. Known for his patience, he is nonetheless impatient with those who threaten the existing order.

Even if Nayef becomes king one day--a possibility that may not come to pass; born in 1933, he suffers from leukemia--he would soon need to select an heir of his own. And it's unclear whether the ruling establishment agrees on how best to pass power to the next generation.

It's a question that has haunted Abdullah in his twilight years. Selecting an heir has long been an opaque process, but over the past decade, the king has been under great pressure to modernize it. …