Nayef’s demise: Relief for the Brothers?

The demise of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef will have significant repercussions not only in the Gulf but also on the whole region, including Egypt. Over the past 18 months, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have seen major developments: the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, the death of former Saudi Crown Prince Sultan, a new Egyptian Parliament and its recent dissolution, the death of the second Saudi crown prince and now a new Brotherhood president in Egypt. While one country has seen changes induced by a popular uprising, the other was the result of divine intervention.

While eyes were fixated on the results of Egypt’s presidential runoff, the news coming from Saudi Arabia was still significant. After all, Saudi-Egyptian relations are multilayered, deep and complex. As of 2011, Saudi Arabia had investments totaling US$10 billion in Egypt with bilateral trade exceeding $3.5 billion annually. The pace of financial aid from Saudi Arabia to Egypt picked up significantly following a high-profile visit led by the Muslim Brotherhood to apologize to Saudi leadership in the aftermath of protests against the Saudi government in Cairo.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia approved $430 million in project aid to Egypt, in addition to a $750 million line of credit to import petroleum products. This came a few days after a separate $1.5 billion was transferred from Riyadh to Cairo as direct budget support. The Saudi government has recently financed large infrastructure projects in Egypt, including “$60 million for supplying drinking water to the Cairo district of Nasr City, $80 million to renew and replace irrigation pumps and $90 million to build seed storage silos,” according to a statement by the Saudi embassy in Cairo to Reuters.

Amid all these financial strings between the two countries, it is quite significant that the late Crown Prince Nayef had vocalized his suspicion of Egypt’s major political player, the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2002, Prince Nayef was quoted as saying, “Without any hesitation I say it, that our problems, all of them, came from the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Additionally, immediately following the fall of Mubarak, the Saudi government withdrew public school books that included references to the Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hassan al-Banna, claiming they “incite violence.” Probably in an attempt to mend ties with Nayef, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party issued an official statement last November congratulating the late crown prince on his appointment.

In a reflection of the significance of Saudi-Egyptian relations, during the busy presidential elections schedule, both presidential contenders in the runoff took time to send condolences on the demise of the crown prince. Egyptian social media users also took a break from following the polarizing presidential election runoff to comment on the passing of Prince Nayef, with one user referring to him as the “Omar Suleiman [former intelligence chief] of Saudi Arabia.” In fact, Prince Nayef publicly received Suleiman last November in Riyadh.

At a time when the future of the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization hangs in the balance awaiting a September court ruling on its potential dissolution, the group will probably welcome one less regional adversary. This is especially true since Morsy inherits the presidency at a time when Egypt’s economy is struggling.

Not only was Nayef hostile to the Brotherhood, but his replacement could be highly agreeable to the group. Prince Nayef’s younger brother, Salman, a former governor of Riyadh, was swiftly appointed as new crown prince. Salman, 76, is well known in diplomatic circles, having received countless ambassadors and delegations over a career spanning several decades. Additionally, Prince Salman’s sons’ business interests include the Saudi Research and Marketing Group media empire that publishes a number of newspapers, including Asharq Al-Awsat. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood may find it much easier to work with a Saudi crown prince and future king who is more business-minded rather than one who was known for building Saudi Arabia’s daunting security force that targeted dissidents. This is particularly the case since the Brotherhood has repeatedly stressed that investments and private sector commerce are priorities in their vision for Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s immediate public reaction to Prince Nayef’s passing may have been to issue a statement of condolence — but internally the group is probably breathing a sigh of relief.

Sultan al-Qassemi is a commentator on Arab affairs based in the United Arab Emirates.

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