The late Saudi prince was a polarising figure involved in many regional issues, particularly counter-terrorism.
In many ways the repercussions following the death of Crown Prince Nayef, heir to the Saudi throne, are far greater than those that followed the death of his predecessor Prince Sultan nine months ago. Prince Nayef, after all, was heavily involved in various “files” (as foreign political responsibilities are referred to in Arabic) over the past few decades including Bahrain, Iraq and Yemen. Since his passing, various Saudi media outlets have highlighted these issues – including the London-based Asharq al-Awsat, a popular newspaper owned by Nayef’s nephews.
Nayef was a polarising figure not least because of the different ways in which his policies affected the lives of those outside the kingdom’s borders. For instance, while Kuwait and Bahrain both declared a three-day period of mourning following Nayef’s demise, there was a different reaction in some sections of their community. Pro-government Bahrainis criticised reported celebrations by a “minuscule minority” in Shia villages on news of the prince’s death, while prominent Kuwaiti members of parliament demanded stringent action against social media users who insulted the late prince.
Video footage from Saudi’s Shia-dominated eastern province also showed residents celebrating the demise of a man who played an important role in the kingdom’s policy towards Shia-majority Bahrain.
Elsewhere in the Gulf, Nayef publicly objected to a proposed bridge between Qatar and the UAE in 2005, calling it “unacceptable” (on the grounds that it would pass over Saudi territorial waters) and adding to a long history of disagreements with the Emirates.
Nayef was also no friend to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose rise complicated relations with Egypt and whom he regarded with great suspicion. Nayef once remarked: “Without any hesitation I say it, that our problems, all of them, came from the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood” and publicly received the movement’s Egyptian arch-enemy, former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, only last November.
It is therefore ironic that Nayef met senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders only weeks before his death, when a delegation headed by the former Egyptian speaker of parliament visited Saudi Arabia to apologise for insults directed at the Saudi leadership by Egyptian protesters in front of the Saudi embassy in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood may find it easier to deal with the new Crown Prince Salman who, although he is also said to be conservative, does not have a similar security background as Nayef.
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Iraq was another “file” handled by Nayef following the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of militant attacks in both Iraq and Saudi. However, Nayef maintained that it was in fact Iraqis who were infiltrating Saudi Arabia and not the other way around. As part of a $12bn plan to secure Saudi borders, Nayef launched in 2006 a seven-year project to build a 560-mile security fence between Saudi and Iraq, which he described as the main base for terrorism in the region.
Towards the southern borders of Saudi Arabia, Nayef’s forces embarked on one of their biggest operations to secure the Saudi-Yemeni borders. Nayef expanded the war against terrorism across the Yemeni border to target al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. In 2009 the group attempted to assassinate Nayef’s son Mohammed who serves as deputy interior minister and commander of counter-terrorism operations.
The following year around 180,000 Yemenis were caught trying to sneak into Saudi Arabia through the porous Jizan frontier, many of whom were bearing arms and ammunitions. As recently as last May, Saudi Arabia announced that it was instrumental in foiling a major terrorist attack emanating from Yemen.
Perhaps the most important and obscure non-Arab file that Nayef was involved in was that of Pakistan. The Times reported in February that Saudi Arabia would consider buying nuclear weapons if Iran acquired any and that the most likely source for Saudi would be Pakistan – although both have denied such an agreement exists. The solid Saudi relationship with Pakistan is heavily dependent on close co-ordination between the interior and intelligence authorities of both states in which Nayef played a significant role.
Nayef’s involvement in security matters also extended beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia in his capacity as the honorary chairman of the Tunisia-based Council of Arab Interior Ministers which under oversight adopted the Arab Pre-emptive Security Plan of 1985 and the Arab Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism in 1998. In fact, the Arab Interior Ministers Council is regarded as one of the only “effective” pan-Arab organisations due to the security-centric nature of Arab regimes.
Much like Suleiman, Nayef was able to play a much more significant role than most other interior ministers in the region. Nayef’s decisions over several decades affected those in not only Saudi Arabia but also a region far wider and more complex. Despite the swift appointment of a new crown prince and interior minister, the regional implications of Nayef’s demise will take a long time to be understood and to resolve.
This article was originally published in The Guardian.