NEWS

Saudi watchers pin their reform hopes on Mohammad bin Nayef

01/24/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/25/2015 05:59 EDT
On Friday, the newly minted ruler of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, announced the death of the late King Abdullah and named his heir during an address broadcast on state television.

What has proven to be the most significant part of the speech, however, was something unexpected: King Salman named his nephew, the 55-year-old Mohammad bin Nayef — the country's current counterterrorism chief and interior minister — as deputy crown prince, or second in line to the throne.

Should he succeed, Nayef would be the first Saudi king that is not a son of the country’s founder and first monarch, Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, commonly known as Ibn Saud, who died in 1953.

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With an unprecedented level of sectarian turmoil riling the Middle East amid plummeting oil prices, the transition of power from Abdullah to his successor has been a topic of significant speculation.

But the larger shift — from the sons of Ibn Saud to the generation of his hundreds of grandsons — was, among many kingdom watchers, the most significant unanswered question facing the future of the country.

Generations of power

Considering King Salman is 79 and in ill health, and that his appointed successor, the Crown Prince Muqrin, is 71, Nayef’s appointment as deputy crown prince carries a special weight, says Rachel Bronson, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs.

"The looming crisis was always, 'how will they move to the grandsons? What would be the rational for whom among them is named heir?' It was believed for a long time that it would be left to Muqrin to decide," says Bronson.

​However, according to Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East program at the Institute of World Affairs, there are factions within the Al Saud family that do not think Muqrin is fit to be king, which raises the possibility that he could be passed over in the line of succession and that Nayef could come to the throne sooner.

Should that happen, Kipper suggests that Nayef could be the one who begins introducing the kinds of reforms that his uncle promised but largely failed to deliver against the backdrop of the highly conservative brand of Islam prominent among the country’s religious establishment.

He is well liked among the country’s elite, but also among common Saudis. He has also garnered international recognition for his counterterrorism acumen, having led Saudi Arabia’s efforts to combat domestic extremism following 9/11 and stamp out al-Qaeda-linked forces that tried to destabilize the country in the mid-2000s.

Perhaps most importantly, Nayef has strong ties to the powerful religious elite, whose ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam presents a potent barrier to modernization.

Winning the political support of those elites, made up largely of older men, is an uphill battle for any ruler, however.

"The kingdom and the royal family will not be able to move forward unless Nayef has the religious establishment at his side. It will be very, very difficult because the religious leaders are generally older and their base of support is so strong," Bronson says.

Coming to terms with the religious elite is a priority for Nayef’s generation, many of whom were educated outside of Saudi Arabia, have travelled extensively and privately hold more socially liberal positions on many key issues, such as education reform and greater equality for women.

"Saudi Arabia is such an important country, globally speaking. It has to modernize, they have to find a way to live in the 21st century, including coming to a consensus about Islam in the modern age," suggests Kipper.

Defeating 'the monsters' on the doorstep

There are, however, a host of more immediate concerns that the Saudi monarchy must deal with before it can truly pursue domestic reforms, says Janice Stein, a professor of political science at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto.

This week’s coup in Yemen, during which Shia rebels forced the country's Sunni president to step down, is viewed by most within Saudi Arabia as a direct threat to Sunni stability in the region.

Similarly, King Salman must address "the monster that the Saudi’s helped create," Stein says, referring to ISIS.

The violent extremist group has denounced the Saudi monarchy and repeatedly said one of its ultimate goals is to capture Sunni holy sites in Saudi Arabia.

The group formed partly from the remnants of other hardline militant Sunni factions that Saudi Arabia has long been accused of covertly financing to act as proxies in regional conflicts with Shia Iran.

One of the wealthiest countries in the region, Saudi Arabia has a complex relationship with many of its neighbours including:

Syria

Early in the Syrian civil war, it was Saudi Arabia that gave financial aid and arms to rebels opposing Bashar al-Assad in a bid to destabilize the Iran-friendly regime. Tehran has blamed this support for helping to give rise to ISIS. 

Iraq

Saudi Arabia has had frosty relations with Iraq of late, especially as Iraq's high offices are occupied by Shia politicians. Saudi Arabia has long accused Iraq of having cozy ties with Iran, but a stronger allegiance between Iraq and Saudi Arabia would bolster regional efforts to fend off ISIS's advances.

Yemen

Saudi shares a mountain border with its southern neighbour Yemen, and has erected a wall to stem the tide of illegal drugs, weapons and al-Qaeda operatives. The recent toppling of the government in Yemen by Shia Houthis rebels will stoke fears of a growing Shia influence, as Saudi views itself as a protector of Sunni Islam.

Iran

Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional rivals, and Shia Tehran has long been suspected of being Yemen's economic lifeline. Saudi Arabia will be concerned about a stronger Iran presence in the region, especially if Tehran succeeds in developing a nuclear threat. But the countries have recently shown signs of willingness to co-operate to defuse the threat of ISIS.

Israel

Although they don’t share official diplomatic ties, the Saudis and the Jewish state do share concerns about the growing power and regional influence of Iran, particularly in Syria. Israel and Saudi Arabia have reportedly held secret meetings about the menace of an Iranian nuclear program, and the late King Abdullah was instrumental in pushing for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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