WASHINGTON – The death of the heir to the Saudi throne has cast a spotlight on the aging leadership of the key U.S. ally amid the upheaval of the Arab Spring rebellions in the Middle East.
Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud was at least 80 when he died Friday after years of failing health. He had been the designated successor to Saudi King Abdullah, 87, who has been hospitalized several times in recent years for what the conservative kingdom has termed back problems.
Sultan is likely to be succeeded by Prince Nayef, the current interior minister, who is in his late 70s. Like King Abdullah, Nayef has opposed Islamic militants, but he also favored ultraconservative traditions such as the country’s law prohibiting women from driving.
In recent years, U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, Washington’s most important Arab partner in the region, have grown more strained. And the popular uprisings that have swept through the region this year have exacerbated tensions, with the Saudis seeing their own stability threatened by the unrest.
But although Sultan was thought to have been relatively pro-U.S., and Nayef somewhat more critical, experts do not attribute the shift to Nayef’s growing power.
“The problem is not one of individuals,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an interview from Istanbul.
“It’s that the Saudis look at what they care about – Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the upheaval in the Arab world – and they feel U.S. policy has been both ineffective and harmful to Saudi interests.”
Although the U.S. has its own complaints about Saudi policy, the Obama administration was quick to praise Sultan on Saturday.
Sultan was a “valued friend of the United States,” President Barack Obama said in a written statement. “He was a strong supporter of the deep and enduring partnership between our two countries forged almost seven decades ago in the historic meeting between President Roosevelt and King Abdul-Aziz al Saud.”
The Obama administration has urged social reforms in Saudi Arabia, and over the summer Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton personally expressed her support for Saudi women who defied the law prohibiting them from driving cars.
In the Saudi dynastic monarchy, the king’s challenge is not to issue orders but rather to bring the family along in communal decisions.
“Prince Nayef will continue to be part of this process,” Alterman said, “and, if he becomes king, he will go from being an advocate to being the mediator. If anything, he is likely to grow closer to the United States in the coming years.”