Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs

May/June 2004


Keeping it in the Family
By F. Gregory Gause III


To the Editor:

Michael Scott Doran captures many elements of the important debate going on in Saudi Arabia about where the country should be headed ("The Saudi Paradox," January/February 2004). I do not think, however, that we have clear evidence yet that bears out his depiction of a ruling family divided into a "reform camp" headed by Crown Prince Abdullah and a "religious camp" headed by Prince Nayef, the interior minister.

The Saudi royal family plays its cards very close to the thobe on the issue of family politics, which makes it difficult for outsiders to make authoritative pronouncements about internal power struggles. The notion of a confrontation between Abdullah and Nayef is plausible, but it is at least as plausible that the conflict between reform and religious extremism is taking place within each member of the ruling family. They all recognize that things have to change, but they also realize the value to them of the religious establishment, which has been a bulwark of the state for generations and has proven its usefulness to the rulers on countless occasions. Add to this tension the incapacity of the king, which leaves Abdullah with responsibility but constrained power, and Abdullah's own penchant for making grand statements but hesitating in the follow-through, and you get a situation in which things do not move very fast.

Nayef has indeed made many statements since September 11 that have made him seem somewhat sympathetic to the Osama bin Laden line. As the chief policeman in Saudi Arabia, however, he must have known that he would be held responsible for the security breaches represented by the large Saudi participation in the September 11 attacks — along with the various al Qaeda-linked bombings in the kingdom last year — and like any official, his initial reaction may well have been to deny the problem and look for scapegoats. Such an attempt to shift blame might well be behind his comments attributing Islamist extremism to the actions of everybody from Israel to the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, it has been Nayef's police who have been hunting down, and in some cases killing, Saudi Arabia's radicals. However sympathetic to the Islamist line he may be, the interior minister is making it clear that he will not tolerate anyone working to undermine his family's authority.

Abdullah, meanwhile, recently refused to meet with the organizers of a petition calling for a "constitutional monarchy" in the kingdom, sending them to Nayef instead for the kind of dressing down that only the chief of police can administer. If Abdullah is the leader of the "reform" party, therefore, he is clearly determined not to get too far out in front of the elite's consensus.

Past open struggles within the Saudi ruling family were marked by public indicators of a kind that we have not yet seen in this case. The conflict between King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal for power in the late 1950s and early 1960s was characterized by frequent cabinet changes, absences from the country on the part of whoever of the two was losing, and, eventually, military mobilizations. The split in the family over how to react to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was accompanied by a prolonged stay in Spain by Crown Prince Fahd, who was apparently on the losing end of that fight. Doran is right about the challenges Saudi Arabia is facing and the soul-searching those challenges are producing, and he may be right about what is going on inside the ruling family as well. But the absence of such signals would seem to indicate that even if there is an Abdullah-Nayef split, it has not reached the level of seriousness of these past internal family fights.

F. Gregory Gause III

Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Vermont