Image: Prince Nayef, Crown Prince Sultan
Fahad Shadeed  /  Reuters file
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Sultan, front right, and his brother Prince Nayef, left, with graduated air force officers during a graduation ceremony in Riyadh in 2009.
By
updated 10/22/2011 4:55:17 PM ET 2011-10-22T20:55:17

Saudi Arabia's ruling monarchy moved into a critical period of realignment Saturday after the death of the heir to the throne opened the way for a new crown prince: most likely a tough-talking interior minister who has led crackdowns on Islamic militants but also has shown favor to ultraconservative traditions such as keeping the ban on women voting.

A state funeral is planned for Tuesday in Riyadh for crown prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, who died in New York at the age of 80 after an unspecified illness, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

Now, Saudi rulers are expected to move quickly to name the new king-in-waiting — which royal protocol suggests will be Sultan's half brother, Prince Nayef.

Moving Nayef to the top of the succession ladder would not likely pose any risks to Saudi Arabia's pro-Western policies and, in particular, its close alliance with Washington. But Nayef cuts a much more mercurial figure than Saudi's current leader, the ailing King Abdullah, who has nudged ahead with reforms such as promising women voting rights in 2015 despite rumblings from the country's powerful religious establishment.

Nayef, 78, has earned U.S. praise for unleashing the internal security forces against suspected Islamic extremist cells in Saudi Arabia, which was home to 15 of 19 of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Yet he brought blistering rebukes in the West for a 2002 interview that quoted him as saying that "Zionists" — a reference to Jews — benefited from the 9-11 attacks because it turned world opinion against Islam and Arabs.

Story: Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz dies in New York

Nayef also has expressed displeasure at some of Abdullah's moves for more openness, saying in 2009 that he saw no need for women to vote or participate in politics. It's a view shared by many Saudi clerics, who follow a strict brand of Islam known as Wahhabism. Their support gives the Saudi monarchy the legitimacy to rule over a nation holding Islam's holiest sites.

"Nayef is more religious, and is closer to the Saudi groups who are very critical of the king's decisions regarding women and other steps he's taken to balance out the rigid religious practices in society," said Ali Fakhro, a political analyst and commentator in Bahrain.

But it remains doubtful that Nayef — if ever made king — would outright annul Abdullah's reforms, which include the establishment of a coed university where both genders can mix. More likely, Nayef would put any further changes on hold, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political affairs professor at Emirates University.

"It's not good news for Saudis or for the region," he said. "(Nayef) is the security guy. He is the mukhabarat (secret police) guy. He is the internal affairs guy."

Although it's not certain that Nayef will be selected to succeed Sultan, the signs point clearly in that direction.

After Sultan fell ill two years ago, Nayef was named second deputy prime minister, traditionally the post right behind the crown prince. For the first time, however, the mechanism of picking the next No. 2 in the royal succession is not entirely clear.

Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz
Hassan Ammar  /  AP
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz.

Traditionally, the king names his successor. But this time it is possible that Abdullah will put the decision to the Allegiance Council, a 33-member body composed of his brothers and cousins. Abdullah created the council as part of his reforms and gave it a mandate to choose the heir.

Abdullah formed the council in order to modernize the process and give a wider voice. When it was created, it was decided that the council would choose the heir for the first time when Sultan rose to the throne, and his crown prince would need to be named. But it was not specified whether it would be used if Sultan died before the king.

The choice of whether to convene the council now will likely be made by the 87-year-old Abdullah, who is currently recovering from his third operation to treat back problems in less than a year.

"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," the palace said in a statement announcing Sultan's death.

The announcement did not elaborate on his illness. According to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from January 2010, Sultan had been receiving treatment for colon cancer since 2009.

While Nayef has taken only minor roles in foreign affairs, he has been outspoken in one of Saudi Arabia's chief regional concerns: ambitions by rival Iran to expand its influence in the Middle East.

Earlier this year, he blamed the Shiite power for encouraging protests among Saudi Arabia's minority Shiites.

Nayef also was involved in the kingdom's decision in March to send military forces into neighboring Bahrain to help crush pro-reform demonstrations led by tiny island nation's majority Shiites against its Sunni rulers — which Gulf Arab leaders accuse of having ties to Iran.

With Yemen, he has called for Saudi Arabia to take a harder line with embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was treated in Saudi Arabia after surviving a blast in June and later returned to Yemen.

In August, Nayef accepted undisclosed libel damages from Britain's newspaper The Independent over an article which accused him of ordering police chiefs to shoot and kill unarmed demonstrators in Saudi Arabia.

Nayef has chaired Cabinet meetings in place of Abdullah and Sultan. He also draws considerable prestige from being among the sons of Abdul-Aziz's most prominent wife, known as the Sudeiri Seven. Abdullah's predecessor Fahd also was among the seven.

"Nayef's closer links to the Wahhabi establishment may see a reversal of some recent reforms, especially regarding women," said Christopher Davidson, a lecturer at Britain's Durham University and an expert on Gulf affairs. "But more likely business as usual, I think, with no further major reforms."

___

Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo and Barbara Surk in Manama, Bahrain, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Saudi Arabia to allow women to vote in 2015

  1. Closed captioning of: Saudi Arabia to allow women to vote in 2015

    >>> overseas tonight there's pretty revolutionary news from saudi arabia . widely seen as one of the most repressive places on earth for women . they may be seeing the handwriting on the wall . women have been given the right to vote starting four years from now. our report tonight from stephanie gosk.

    >> reporter: it is the birth place of islam, and governed by one of the strictest interpretations of muslim law in the world. change in saudi arabia happened slowly, but it's happening. for the first time in this country's history, king abdullah has given women the right to vote and run for political office . women can't actually go to the polls until 2015 , and the elected council has little power over king abdullah . supporter of women 's rights say this is a significant step.

    >> it is seen as a real commitment in terms of leadership, to ensuring women 's power in the future.

    >> reporter: women in saudi arabia can't leave the house without being fully covered and accompanied by a male guardian, regardless of their age. they aren't even allowed to drive. dozens of saudi activists got behind the wheel last june. one of the organizers now faces a criminal trial. the driving law hasn't changed, but king abdullah seems to have gotten the message.

    >> the arab revolution, plus technological change , and women leaders fighting for their rights has all come together at a unique moment in time.

    >> reporter: the king has raised salaries for government workers, increased unemployment benefits and housing. now that women have a voice, the calls for more change may grow even louder. stephanie gosk, nbc news, london.

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