Saudi Arabia at a Crossroads
Unlike any other royal death, Crown Prince Naïf's will have a prodigious impact on his family and on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia regardless of who sits on the throne. His death ends an era of fear and intimidation, an era when his dreaded security police abducted people from their homes, holding them without charges or trials in solitary confinement for years.
Even if Prince Naif's death does not change the status quo in the kingdom, it will remove an octopus-like nightmare most Saudis, including members of his own family, have endured for the last forty years. His departure from the Saudi political landscape presents the Saudi ruling princes with a game-changing opportunity that could be utilized to transform Saudi institutions, changes Naif had adamantly opposed.
As the architect and enforcer of Saudi Arabia's multi-layered security apparatus, Naif was the kingdom's "Darth Vader," presiding over a 130,000 strong paramilitary force, all of the nation's police forces, customs, immigration, the coast guard, the border guard and the religious police. This overwhelming power gave Naif the supremacy he wanted to promote his own agenda in the kingdom and oppose reform, ensuring his family's survival and guaranteeing its hegemony over the country, its people and its wealth.
Naif was a nationalist; a hardnosed, independent and ferocious royal who maintained rigid control over his family and the kingdom, even though the presiding king is supposed to have the final say in all matters of state. Convinced that any change in the status quo would lead to the demise of the ruling family at a time of widespread revolt across the Arab world, Naif blocked meaningful social, political, economic and religious reforms from taking place in his country.
Now that the two most powerful opponents of reform, Princes Sultan and Naif are gone, it's up to King Abdullah to prove to his restless population that he is the kind of reformer his subjects believe and want him to be. Only time will tell, but if the king's actions reflect his intentions, the Saudis who have mistakenly put their faith in him may be in for a rude awakening.
Rather than seize this opportunity for change, the king has already selected Prince Salman to inherit the throne, a man whose staunch opposition to reform greatly outdoes that of his predecessors, Naif and Sultan. Indeed, Salman has long felt that the ruling family has already gone out of its way to accommodate their subjects.
It would be a tragic mistake for King Abdullah, Prince Salman, their Mufti and their major ally and supporter, the US, to continue operating under the assumption that the Saudi people will remain ambivalent to what's happening in their country. Like their counterparts in the Arab World, the Saudi people are becoming progressively convinced that violence may be the only option available for them to achieve their political rights.
It would have been prudent for King Abdullah to revive and expand the Council of Allegiance, the body he created in 2006 to choose a new king and crown prince. The present political, social and gender status quo cannot be sustained for long regardless of the ruling family's scare tactics, monetary compensation (bribery) or its empty promises. The time to act on reform is now.
Tomorrow might be too late.
Ali H. Alyami
Executive Director, Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia