Saudi state television on Saturday reported the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz. Nayef, believed to be in his late seventies, became the heir apparent to the Saudi throne just eight months ago when his brother Sultan passed away.
Nayef’s death raises concern about the royal succession plans of one of the most powerful states in the Middle East and the world’s premier oil exporter. All of the princes considered to be in line to the throne are in their seventies or eighties but it is unlikely that the position of crown prince will pass to a younger member of the family soon.
All possible heirs are sons of Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi kingdom who died in 1953. The order of succession to the throne usually follows agnatic seniority but a prince may be surpassed if there is a consensus in the royal family.
Prince Salman, the defense minister, could be next in line. He is seen as a cautious reformer like ruling King Abdullah. Nayef, by contrast, was a staunch conservative, closer to the kingdom’s Wahhabi religious establishment than more liberal members of the royal family are.
Nayef’s death robs the Al Saud of one of their stalwart members at a time of political upheaval in the Middle East. He was believed to have forged amicable ties with Sunni groups abroad like the Muslim Brotherhood which is asserting itself politically across the region in the wake of the “Arab Spring” uprisings which Saudi Arabia has regarded with apprehension.
Last year, Saudi ally President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign in the face of mass popular demonstrations. The kingdom negotiated the ouster of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Even if his successor, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, appears determined to crush the Al Qaeda presence in his country, the unrest on Saudi Arabia’s southwestern frontier is unwelcome especially as conflict looms in the Persian Gulf region. Saudi nemesis Iran has threatened to lash out against oil transit infrastructure and American allies there if its nuclear sites are attacked which Israel and the United States suspect are used to develop a weapon.
At the helm of the Interior Ministry since 1975, Nayef had developed a formidable security infrastructure that crushed terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and suppressed political dissent in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, Shia unrest has been rising in the kingdom’s oil rich Eastern Province and across the border in Bahrain. Riyadh blames Iran for fomenting the protests.