Saudi crown prince's death raises question of succession
The most likely choice, regional experts agree, is Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, Sultan’s half-brother and the nation's interior minister. Saudi King Abdullah, 87, elevated Nayif to second deputy prime minister in 2009, a post traditionally held by the second in line to the throne.
Nayif, 76, has led crackdowns against Islamic militants but is believed to be more conservative than Abdullah or Sultan. He has close ties to fundamentalist Wahhabi clerics who uphold the segregation of the sexes and have resisted attempts at modest reforms, such as building the country's first coeducational university and giving women the right to vote.
Sultan served as Saudi Arabia's defense minister for about five decades, becoming crown prince in 2005 after the death of King Fahd. The royal court announced Sultan's death Saturday in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
"It is with deep sorrow and grief that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah mourns the loss of his brother and crown prince, His Royal Highness Prince Sultan… who died at dawn this morning Saturday outside the kingdom following an illness," the statement said.
The royal court did not specify the illness, although Sultan was believed to be suffering from cancer.
Ultimate authority over succession matters rests with the king, who has traditionally made his choice in secret. But Abdullah could summon the Allegiance Council, a new body made up of royal family members that was created to give greater transparency to the process.
The selection of a new heir could be complicated by family politics, as well as the advanced age and ailments of the kingdom's senior princes. But Asaad Shamlan, a political science professor in Riyadh, the capital, said he believed there would be an orderly succession.
"The point of reference will be the ruling of the Allegiance Council," Shamlan told Reuters. "It seems to me most likely Nayif will be chosen. If he becomes crown prince, I don't expect much immediate change."
-- Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles
Photo: Saudi Crown Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, front right, and Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, front left, pose for a photo with graduating air force officers in Riyadh on Dec. 27, 2009. Credit: Fahad Shadeed / Reuters.