Prince Nayef became crown prince — first in line to succeed the king — in 2011.
In recent years, Prince Nayef had emerged as a close U.S. partner on counterterrorism and the fight to vanquish al-Qaeda. As interior minister since 1975, he was responsible for protecting the Saudi realm and maintaining order within its borders.
He led a vicious campaign against al-Qaeda after a series of attacks inside Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2006. He was hailed for helping to suppress Islamic radicalism.
Former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman said in an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday that Prince Nayef was brutally efficient against Saudi Arabia’s enemies.
“It was a comprehensive and quite successful counterterror strategy, which Nayef was intimately involved with at every stage,” Freeman said.
But he was long considered a capricious ally, and his relationship with the United States was complicated by a deep-seated distrust of Americans.
During the 1970s, the United States presented him with a new desk as a gift to honor his rise in status at the Interior Ministry. According to Steve Coll’s 2008 book “The Bin Ladens,” Prince Nayef later learned the desk was bugged with a CIA listening device.
After the discovery, the prince became increasingly hostile toward the U.S. government and sometimes failed to cooperate in terror-related issues with the White House and FBI.
In 1996, he refused to meet with FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who came to Saudi Arabia to oversee the investigation of the Khobar Towers bombing, in which 19 Americans were killed.
Instead, low-ranking deputies met with Freeh, while Prince Nayef relaxed on his private yacht anchored in the Red Sea.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Prince Nayef said he did not think that any Saudis participated in the attacks, although it was later determined that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from the kingdom. He claimed that Jews were responsible for the attacks.
His attitude toward al-Qaeda began to change in 2003, after a series of bombings targeted Saudi government facilities and members of the royal family. He swiftly took action against individuals with suspected ties to al-Qaeda and implemented programs in mosques around the country to refute and discredit extremist ideologies.
Nayef bin Abdul Aziz was born in 1933, in the settlement of Taif, and grew up in a childhood replete with the trappings of power and privilege.
He was the 23rd son of the kingdom’s founder, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, and his favorite wife, Hassa bint Ahmad Al-Sudairi.
Prince Nayef drew much of his prestige from being a member of the “Sudairi Seven,” an elite clique of brothers who ruled the realm’s most prominent institutions.
He was a half-brother of the current monarch, King Abdullah, and a full brother to King Fahd, who ruled from 1982 to 2005, and Crown Prince Sultan, who died in 2011.
After Sultan’s death, Prince Nayef assumed the role of crown prince. Prince Nayef’s full brother, Prince Salman, who is serving as the Saudi defense minister, is expected to succeed him.
Saudi Arabia expert Peter Mandaville of George Mason University said in an interview Saturday that Prince Nayef uniquely consolidated power through deft maneuvering.
“Of all the sons of the founder of the kingdom, Nayef was the most adept at playing both the games of royal politics and bureaucratic politics,” Mandaville said. “In Saudi Arabia, power resides in three separate spaces: royal family circles, the actual government and the religious establishment. Nayef was able to integrate all three of those pieces within his power base and exerted his influence into all of the domains.”
Prince Nayef began his career in governance at 18 and later served as governor of Riyadh province, the seat of the country’s capital. As interior minister, he promoted his own puritanical beliefs of Sunni Islam, and he was regarded as conservative even by Saudi royal family standards.
He oversaw the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a spiritual rite known as the hajj that attracts more than 2 million Muslims to Saudi Arabia.
Prince Nayef rose to prominence in 1979 after he helped engineer an operation that successfully wiped out insurgents who had seized control of Al-Masjid Al-Haram, the most sacred mosque in Mecca.
His ascension in 2011 to the position of crown prince worried White House officials, Mandaville said, who saw the prospect of a kingdom ruled by Prince Nayef as far from ideal.
“His skepticism of the United States combined with his uncompromising approach to local justice inside Saudi Arabia itself made him someone the United States was not looking forward to doing business with,” Mandaville said.
King Abdullah has been praised by the U.S. government for instituting reforms that, although modest, have improved the quality of life for Saudi citizens.
“There was a working assumption that Nayef would have negated and rolled back what Abdullah had done,” Mandaville said.
Mandaville and Freeman said that Prince Nayef’s most enduring contribution will be his key role in fighting extremists.
He had groomed his son, Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, to be his deputy and a pivotal figure combating al-Qaeda.
“Mohammed has been the chief interlocutor between the Saudis and the United States’ counterterrorism establishment,” Mandaville said. “With a nod from his powerful father, Mohammed has nurtured incredibly close and valuable counterterrorism cooperation.”