What was once regarded as his "faction" within the family, a relatively small circle of supporters, has now become the family mainstream, with those formerly viewed as outliers (Talal bin Abd al-Aziz and even his son al-Walid) integrated more closely with the top tier, and those whose views no longer "conform" to the narrative (such as Khalid bin Talal) marginalized. Deeply involved in his work at Interior, and distracted by failing health, and taken off guard, Nayif did not feel the winds of change blowing, but soon found himself swept up by the new order.
Given time to reassess the situation while abroad, Nayif apparently decided to go with the flow, but even then he misread the forecast. From his residence in Algeria, Nayif decided to address the controversy over women athletes at the Olympic games this summer and perhaps show a more progressive side. According to al-Hayat newspaper, the crown prince said that women can represent Saudi at the Olympics in London as long as they do not contradict Islamic laws. His approval was conditioned on women competing in sports that "meet the standards of women's decency and don't contradict Islamic laws," though even this concession seemed surprising. Yet only a few days later, his pronouncement was thrown out. The head of the Saudi Olympic Committee, Nawwf bin Faysal bin Fahd, explicitly ruled out sending women athletes to the London Olympics. "We are not endorsing any Saudi female participation at the moment in the Olympics or other international championships," he told a press conference in Jiddah. Nawwaf added that Saudi women taking part on their own were free to do so, and the Kingdom's Olympic authority would "help in ensuring that their participation does not violate the Islamic shari'a law." Though he did emphasize that this was in accordance with a previously-stated position, it did seem a rebuff to Nayif.
More recently, Nayif gave instructions regarding the release of prisoners, saying that that those who do not pose a threat, and inmates whose imprisonment is pointless, should be released. Though ostensibly this was done to reduce overcrowding in prisons, which has been blamed on lengthy procedures, it does show Nayif again making conciliatory gestures. Although the order excluded those specifically imprisoned over charges of violating the security of the Kingdom, some of those affected may be political activists, and almost all of the agitation in the eastern region has been over demands for the release of such prisoners.
Yet, the contrast with the approach taken by Asir Governor Faysal bin Khalid in successfully dealing with protests by university students there could not be more apparent. Though he warned against incitement, he met with student representatives and formed a youth council to address their demands. It is hard to imagine Nayif taking such a considered approach in his stead.
A chastened crown prince may have returned with his bearings regained, but there are signs he is still on the outs. His coterie now includes those like Prince Abd al-Aziz bin Fahd, formerly one of King Abdallah's closest aides, but who seems to have had a falling out with the monarch. The fact that relatively junior princes like Nawwaf bin Fahd can nonchalantly brush him aside indicates that Nayif has a credibility problem, and will not easily re-insinuate himself to favor. His efforts to appear less detached and more humane seem feeble, and given Abdallah's track record of head-on battles with the religious conservatives over contentious issues, there will be little confidence that Nayif, as king, will follow the same path, despite some half-hearted gestures. Continuing suspicion over his stance on issues of the day, and reform in general, compounded with concern over his declining health, will cast a cloud over Nayif for the forseeable future. In the meantime, his comparatively vigorous full brother Prince Salman is the one to watch.