Jun 16, 2012 / 8:18 am
Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, the hard-line interior minister who spearheaded Saudi Arabia's fierce crackdown crushing al-Qaida's branch in the country after the 9-11 attacks and then rose to become next in line to the throne, has died. He was in his late 70s.
Nayef's death unexpectedly reopens the question of succession in this crucial U.S. ally and oil powerhouse for the second time in less than a year.
The 88-year-old King Abdullah has now outlived two designated successors, despite ailments of his own.
Now a new crown prince must be chosen from among his brothers and half-brothers, all the sons of Saudi Arabia's founder, Abdul-Aziz.
The figure believed most likely to be tapped as the new heir is Prince Salman, the current defence minister who previously served for decades in the powerful post of governor of Riyadh, the capital. The crown prince will be chosen by the Allegiance Council, an assembly of Abdul-Aziz's sons and some of his grandchildren.
It also opens the possibility of moving a member of the so-called "third generation," the grandchildren of the country's founding monarch, one step closer to taking the leadership of one of the West's most crucial Arab allies.
"This is the big question," said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Will this now bring a member of Saudi's younger generation into the succession path to the throne?"
A statement by the royal family said Nayef died Saturday in a hospital abroad. Saudi-funded pan-Arab TV station Al-Arabiya later confirmed he died in Geneva.
Nayef had been out of the country since late May, when he went on a trip that was described as a "personal vacation" that would include medical tests. He travelled abroad frequently in recent years for tests but authorities never reported what ailments he may have been suffering from.
Nayef had a reputation for being a hard-liner and a conservative. He was believed to be closer than many of his brothers to the powerful Wahhabi religious establishment that gives legitimacy to the royal family, and he at times worked to give a freer hand to the religious police who enforce strict social rules.
Keath reported from Cairo.
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