The Prince Naif I knew (Part 1)
(First of a two-part series)
In the days after the death of Crown Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud on June 16, although much was written about his life surprisingly little enlightened us. Most analyzes gathered easily available statistical data published online for years, and merely re-emphasized his birth date, career and honorary awards in tribute. Unsurprisingly, most articles repeated two particular themes: Prince Naif, it was printed, was a ‘hard-liner’, a euphemism for ‘one the West found unpalatable to work with’ in its expectations of rapprochement. Or, they stressed, he was a “Wahhabi” through-and-through, single-handedly responsible for the continued presence of the commonly (and incorrectly) referred to ‘Vice and Virtue Police’ (mutawa’in, Men of Hesbah or Haia) so oft visible on the streets of the Kingdom. Two years ago the crown prince spoke out, and thanked the scholars for their protection of the nation and encouraged them to take advantage of newly available social media technologies; but he also kept them on track in their duties. Strict measures were taken against the charities to ensure no misappropriation of funds, and many were quickly shut down after 9/11. The intergovernmental G7-implemented Financial Action Task Force (under the oversight of the US Treasury Department) recently judged Saudi Arabia as having “outclassed” other nations in its compliance with their standards when monitoring charitable activities, now overseen by the Ministry of Social Affairs and intelligence authorities. Whilst he was certainly eager to prevent the threat of terrorism in any way and enforced measures to jail and imprison many suspected of nefarious intent, the crown prince understood the meaning of forgiveness and rehabilitation. The re-education center outside of Riyadh became a template for success under the leadership of his son Prince Muhammad, many prisoners completing its therapy and theology program and released back into society as reformed men. And just before his last treatment abroad, Prince Naif formed a committee to study all prisoners’ cases, releasing all but the most dangerous to society.
One sentence cropped up in many resources, cut and pasted with little deviation. As the Washington Post noted, “Soon after becoming crown prince, Naif vowed at a conference of clerics that Saudi Arabia would 'never sway from and never compromise on' its adherence to the puritanical, ultraconservative Wahhabi doctrine. The ideology, he proclaimed, 'is the source of the Kingdom’s pride, success and progress.'”
Variants from Reuters were added elsewhere: “This is what had him tell a conference of clerics last year that he would 'never sway from, and never compromise on' Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Wahhabi Islam.” Note how the original term ‘Wahhabi’ slips out of the actual quotation attributed to Prince Naif. It is a perfect example of how the media manipulates public opinion and reinforces a myth, in this case inserting a disparaging falsehood to describe Muslims in Saudi Arabia as a monolithic force to be feared. Making no distinction between salafi, multazim or ‘moderate’, a predetermined bias is emphasized yet again. The crown prince would not have used the invented term ‘Wahhabi’ — few Saudis would. Instead he only made it quite clear that the Kingdom would never deviate from Islam. Just Islam. Only Islam. Yet, the sentence floats around the Internet as a permanent descriptor of the recently departed, unable to defend against the ad hominem.
People believe what they are made to believe. As long as commentaries regurgitate the same themes, this risks being his only legacy.
I knew a different Prince Naif.
What was he like in person? What did he think about the world? How tough was he? How knowledgeable was he as to non-domestic affairs? Only his friends and family knew the private man, and their memories may be divulged at some point in the future. Nevertheless, I decided that if others can generate entire careers, multiple book deals, and think-tank careers out of a 90-minute meeting with Osama Bin Laden, I think my experiences with the late crown prince are at least somewhat valuable as a supplemental insight to his character.
It was time, therefore, to dust off the many hours of voice recordings and review some of the endless notes, and reveal some of what he shared with me personally, for posterity.
The Prince Naif I knew was deeply caring and considerate, gentle to an extreme, a fatherly figure that asked first about my family and how I was before he spoke a word about himself. He was extremely patient, giving as much time as possible to answer questions or continue the conversation down every path he knew I wished to explore. One of the most dominant powers in Saudi history, the crown prince sought my permission to answer “only one call” that interrupted our discussion. “Please would you mind? It’s my daughter!” he exclaimed in English, beaming in delight as he saw her name on his mobile phone. Just a father’s crystal-gray eyes, twinkling at the thought of his child.
Our first meeting was in early 2006. Waving a temporary goodbye to my three sons as I hopped the plane from Riyadh to Jeddah to meet for an anticipated brief encounter, I was told to assume a half an hour of His Royal Highness’ time. I thus held limited expectations, and an early return flight that evening. Unlike most meetings in Saudi Arabia, as soon as I arrived I was taken directly into his sitting room without delay. Tea, dates and sweets arrived, but soon it was just Prince Naif and me, his translator discreetly behind. He understood English however, and I was surprised at how quiet and almost shy the prince seemed.
We discussed politics and war, foreign policy and charity. We talked of the Gulf War and 9/11, and obfuscation versus clarity in global historical acts. Clearly, we covered Islam and oil — both fundamental elements to the Kingdom’s birth and survival. Some topics he asked I keep off the record, and I honor his confidence still. What did I think the country should do in going forward? How did I feel about strong borders being relaxed because of external pressures? Prince Naif gave the impression that my opinions held value to him, as so many of them poured forth and he seemed genuinely eager to know.
That first meeting lasted all night. We talked for over four hours without a single break, and at its conclusion I saw the look of sheer unrepentant relief by the loyal staffers who had remained outside for the entire duration of our meeting, now desperately relieved to finally be going home to sleep. “Look at the clock,” Prince Naif’s general laughed as we exited. “You broke the record! Never before has His Highness spent so long in conversation with a visitor alone.” The far-ranging topics of discussion must have surely kept him keenly interested, exclaimed the general. “You will be back soon, Insha’Allah!” Needless to say I missed my return flight, but the prince’s advisers quickly re-booked for me, no doubt at the same time as calling their wives to explain their much-delayed homecomings.
Fiercely proud of his people, Prince Naif felt as though the Kingdom ought to be more appreciated for its independence and self-sufficiency. From barren desert to modern metropolis, from camels and dates to motorways, jets, shopping malls and the finest international cuisine, he watched his land transform into the powerhouse that it is today. Yet the country was unceasingly maligned by outsiders who had once been stationed on bases far from the main cities a generation prior, had passed through on a flying business visit, or who had never visited except from the comfort of their armchairs in a different world thousands of miles away.
“We built ourselves up — by ourselves,” the crown prince made clear. “We never got any assistance from anyone: Not one building, not one clinic, not one school. We never got any material things without paying for them all in full.”
• Tanya Cariina Hsu is a British political analyst specializing in US-Saudi foreign policy. She was educated at the University of Essex (economics) and the University of Oxford (Islamic studies), and moved to Saudi Arabia in 2005.
— This article is exclusive to Arab News