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Crown prince's death leaves conservative heir

Saudi Arabia's ruling monarchy moved into a critical period of realignment Saturday after the death of the heir to the throne opened the way for a new crown prince: Most likely, a tough-talking interior minister who has led crackdowns on Islamic militants but also has shown favor to ultraconservative traditions such as keeping the ban on women voting.

A state funeral is planned for Tuesday in Riyadh for Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, who died in New York at age 80 after an unspecified illness, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

The announcement did not elaborate on his illness. According to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from January 2010, Sultan had been receiving treatment for colon cancer since 2009.

President Obama called the prince "a valued friend of the United States" in a statement of condolence. "He was a strong supporter of the deep and enduring partnership between our two countries forged almost seven decades ago."

"He will be missed," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Tajikistan. "Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is strong and enduring, and we will look forward to working with the leadership for many years to come."

Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, said Sultan served his country with "great dignity and dedication."

Sultan is survived by 32 children from multiple wives. They include Bandar, the former ambassador to the United States who now heads the National Security Council, and Khaled, Sultan's assistant in the Defense Ministry.

Saudi rulers are expected to move quickly to name the new king-in-waiting -- which royal protocol suggests will be Sultan's half-brother, Prince Nayef.

Moving Nayef to the top of the succession ladder would not likely pose any risks to Saudi Arabia's pro-Western policies and, in particular, its close alliance with Washington. But Nayef cuts a much more mercurial figure than Saudi's current leader, the ailing King Abdullah, who has nudged ahead with reforms such as promising women voting rights in 2015 despite rumblings from the country's powerful religious establishment.

Nayef, 78, has earned U.S. praise for unleashing the internal security forces against suspected Islamic extremist cells in Saudi Arabia, which was home to 15 of 19 of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Yet he brought blistering rebukes in the West for a 2002 interview that quoted him as saying that "Zionists" -- a reference to Jews -- benefited from the Sept. 11 attacks because it turned world opinion against Islam and Arabs.

Nayef also has expressed displeasure at some of Abdullah's moves for more openness, saying in 2009 that he saw no need for women to vote or participate in politics. It's a view shared by many Saudi clerics, who follow a strict brand of Islam known as Wahhabism. Their support gives the Saudi monarchy the legitimacy to rule over a nation holding Islam's holiest sites.

"Nayef is more religious, and [he] is closer to the Saudi groups who are very critical of the king's decisions regarding women and other steps he's taken to balance out the rigid religious practices in society," said Ali Fakhro, a political analyst and commentator in Bahrain.

But it remains doubtful that Nayef -- if ever made king -- would outright annul Abdullah's reforms, which include the establishment of a coed university where both genders can mix. More likely, Nayef would put any further changes on hold, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political affairs professor at Emirates University.

"It's not good news for Saudis or for the region," he said. "[Nayef] is the security guy. He is the mukhabarat [secret police] guy. He is the internal affairs guy."