RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The death of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz on Saturday means that – for the second time in less than a year – the key Western ally must pick an heir to the 88-year-old King Abdullah, who has already outlived two designated successors. Nayef, who was named the king-in-waiting in November, had been out of the country since late May, when he went on a trip described as a “personal vacation” that would include medical tests.
Prince Nayef was the interior minister who spearheaded Saudi Arabia’s fierce crackdown that crushed al-Qaida’s branch in the country after the 9/11 attacks. He was in his late 70s. He had a reputation for being a hard-liner and was seen as close to the powerful Wahhabi religious establishment that gives legitimacy to the royal family. His elevation to crown prince after the death of his brother, Prince Sultan, had raised worries among liberals that he could roll back the modest reforms of King Abdullah if he reached the throne.
Nayef’s brother, the 76-year-old Prince Salman, is widely expected to be selected as crown prince by Saudi Arabia’s Allegiance Council, an assembly of sons and grandsons of the country’s first monarch, the late King Abdul-Aziz.
Salman is the current defense minister and, like Nayef, a son of the country’s founding monarch.
Analysts believe he shares many of Nayef’s conservative views and is unlikely to challenge the religious establishment if made king.
Until now the successor has been chosen from the sons of King Abdul-Aziz but the deaths of two crown princes mean the Saudi leadership can turn to a younger generation, his grandsons. This would mark an important shift toward a new era under the stewardship of a generation raised with deeper Western connections.