The Saudi challenge |
Asharq Al-Awsat - 18 June, 2012
Author: Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid
It is difficult for any political institution in the world to deal with consecutive major shocks, such as the death of the former Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz nearly 7 months ago, and now everyone’s shock at the passing of Crown Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, one of the pillars of the Saudi state. Nevertheless the Saudi ruling system stands strong; it is an institution not an individual, and the state has proven – since its inception in its third guise more than 80 years ago – that by continuing within the framework of a social contract it can overcome various adversities, and likewise ensure its stability and special relationship with society.
Prince Naif was an important pillar; he was the Minister of Interior among his other highly significant functions. He was responsible for managing crises in some of the most serious historical periods, when the Kingdom faced some of its most serious tribulations. He was not only victorious in his battles, but he was victorious in every aspect of them, and perhaps the best known and most recent example was the war with al-Qaeda. The terrorist organization had sought to strike almost every part of the country; Riyadh, Mecca, Jeddah, Khobar, al-Qassim, Yanbu and elsewhere. Some countries believed that the Kingdom was rapidly deteriorating and closed down their embassies, deported their communities and stopped commercial flights. The international press concluded that Saudi Arabia would not survive and even if it did succeed in its war with al-Qaeda, it would not emerge intact.
Although terrorists attacked Prince Naif’s office in the Interior Ministry and tried to kill his son Prince Muhammad at home, injuring some of security personnel, the terrorist organization ultimately failed.
Prince Naif managed the battle on multiple fronts, security was one of them, and social and political aspects were among the others. His project sought to besiege terrorism religiously, nationally and morally, and to engage the Saudi citizen in his cause. Not only did he eliminate the dormant and active cells of the global terrorist organization in Saudi Arabia, he succeeded in what others had failed to do. Soon it became a war of the citizens against an ideology, an organization and its individuals, and al-Qaeda’s rulers and members were besieged after failing to win over the average citizen with their slogans, allegations, fatwas and propaganda. Prince Naif was keen for everyone to know that they were defending their country, not a political regime. He paid attention early to terrorists seeking to recruit different members from various tribes and regions, hoping to strike the Kingdom’s social fabric and besiege the state by doing so. Instead the game turned on its head, whereby these targeted tribes and groups turned against the organization and its surviving members fled to the mountains of Yemen, Afghanistan and Iran.
The late Prince Naif cannot merely be summed up by the terrorism issue, which is just a part of his achievements, and just a part of his long history of work. I think a lot has been said about Prince Naif, but little was known about the true nature of his work due to his rare public appearances. By virtue of my career in journalism, I came to know Prince Naif. Often I would not ask him about specific issues but instead allow him to provide me with the information he saw fit, not necessarily for publication, but such was his style of disclosure.
In the 1980s, I visited Prince Naif after confrontations had intensified with the Iranians who had been sent to disrupt the regime in Saudi Arabia during the Hajj, within the context of a major political and security battle. Iranian military planes had penetrated the air space above Saudi waters; thousands of Iranian “pilgrims” had been sent from the Revolutionary Guards, trained to fight, a propaganda campaign had been launched against the Kingdom and soldiers had been killed in the Holy Mosque’s outer square.
At the time I asked Prince Naif about a news item reported by the Saudi Press Agency, claiming that some Iranians had attacked the Baqi cemetery in Medina where many companions of the Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him –are buried.
I put it to him that this incident could have been a misunderstanding, and not necessarily an intentional act of chaos. He did not elaborate on what happened but rather showed me photos of the incident, dozens of them. Indeed, the scenes were very painful and shameful to see, and Prince Naif said that security forces had sought to put an end to them without causing a rift between worshipers and visitors from both communities. He said that there were those who wanted to wage a battle in Medina, hence the prior confrontations in front of the Holy Mosque, and that he was not worried about deterring them but likewise he did not want matters to escalate further. This, according to Prince Naif, was what the Iranian regime wanted, namely to create major new rifts on Saudi Arabian soil.
I am not going to talk further here about the nature of the challenges that have continued since 1979 up until this day, but rather I will talk about the nature of Saudi governance; smooth, resolute, and able to withstand shocks, heal wounds and gain prominence rapidly. Although Prince Naif could have succeeded in his work by using force, he always preferred to handle issues with wisdom, patience and by calculating matters and putting things in perspective. Saudi Arabia’s leaders have characterised and will always characterise the Saudi regime, in their wisdom and their management style, and from our experience we know that the family is able to survive and adapt, despite the gravity of the loss of such a man – may God rest his soul – who used to hold such a significant place in the life of the Saudis.