Crown prince's death

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DAMASCUS - Saudi Arabia has lost its second crown prince in less than a year with the death on Saturday of Prince Nayef Bin Abdul-Aziz, the powerful half-brother of King Abdullah. Nayef's death at the age of 78 forces the kingdom to address challenging questions.
The most likely candidate to take the position to succeed the 89-year-old king is Prince Salman, 76, and like all former kings a son of Saudi Arabia's founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud.
When his succession is settled, Saudi royals need to sit down solemnly and discuss what is being endlessly debated behind closed doors: what to do when the ailing Abdullah, aged 89, parts the scene. With all heirs to the Saudi throne way past retirement age, the question of succession is more vital now than ever, due to the King’s poor health and the Arab Spring that broke out 16-months ago.

Nayef, a conservative Muslim, became crown prince last October, and in light of the king’s heath effectively also became de factoruler of Saudi Arabia. Abdullah made him Second Deputy Prime Minister back in 2009, a position usually reserved for whoever was third in line to the Saudi throne. He got along well with the king, having worked with him in running day-to-day affairs in the 1990s, when their older brother Fahd was incapacitated by prolonged illness.

Since assuming the job of Interior Minister in 1975, Nayef had been close to the conservative clergy of Saudi Arabia, and because of his hardline Sunni sympathies a loud and aggressive opponent of both Iran and Hezbollah, whom he accused of purposely sidelining the Sunnis of Iraq and Lebanon.

With little doubt, they grinned at his passing, given that he had given Tehran a serious headache since coming to power eight months ago. One of his projects had been to support a Sunni Spring in Baghdad, aimed at toppling Iran-backed politicians who rose to power after the 2003 invasion; Muqtada al-Sadr, Ammar al-Hakim, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Malki.

Nayef had argued that Saudi Arabia should never allow Iran to get the upper hand in Iraq, seeing it as a direct threat to Sunnis across the Middle East and the Gulf, and a direct threat to the national security of Saudi Arabia. His views on Iran, and his war with al-Qaeda, made him an all-time favorite of the US. He lived to see the demise of Osama bin Laden, but died before his ambitions in Iraq were fulfilled.

The new crown prince
Although a successor has not yet been named, it will likely be Prince Salman, the powerful defense minister, who is yet another brother of King Abdullah and Prince Nayef. The final say, however, will be for the Allegiance Council that the king set up in 2006, bringing 34 members of the ruling family under one umbrella to decide on any incoming heir apparent.

Born in December 1935, Prince Salman is 77 years old and the 25th son of the kingdom’s founder Ibn Saud. His mother was the powerful Hassa al-Sudairi, making him a member of the “Sudairi Seven”. Actually, now that King Fahd, Prince Sultan, and Prince Nayef are all dead, this leaves a Sudairi Four, all half-brothers of Abdullah. Salman became defense minister after the passing of his full-brother Prince Sultan in late 2011. He trained at the hands of his father, who was a legendary figure in Arab history, and after Abdul-Aziz’s death, became Emir of the Saudi Capital in March 1954. Under King Saud, he became Governor of Riyadh in 1955 and kept this post until 2011, with a brief interruption in 1960-1963.

During his tenure as governor of Riyadh, Salman oversaw its transformation from a wasteland into a major urban metropolis, attracting tourism, investment, and real estate development projects. Among his many memorable feats was “cleaning” Riyadh from beggars, deporting foreigners outside the country and rehabilitating Saudis in a program at the Ministry of Social Affairs. As a conservative Muslim, however, he doesn’t believe that democracy is compatible with Saudi Arabian culture.

Although in his 70s, he is close both to the younger generation of Saudi royals, and old-timers like the King and his Foreign Minister. Additionally, he owns a media empire that runs the popular and highly influential political daily newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat, and the economic title, Al-Eqtisadiah. He has all the qualities of becoming king, but faces one crucial problem: his age.

Salman, like the king, is not in good health. He underwent spinal surgery in the US in August 2010, and has suffered one announced stroke, which left him bed-ridden for weeks. It is unlikely that Salman will die before Abdullah, meaning, if he makes it to the job of crown prince, he will become the next monarch when King Abdullah parts the scene. This highlights the issue of succession, yet again, when many are arguing that it is high time to pass on succession from the sons of Abdul-Aziz to his grandsons, whose rights to the throne were recognized in March 1992 by King Fahd himself.

The next generation, however, is either middle-aged, or also, well into their 70s making it imperative that one day, a royal decree needs to be passed, granting succession to the third generation, King Abdul-Aziz’s great grandchildren. Given the advanced age and medical condition of the first and second generation of Saudi royals, it is likely that a king will die every two or three years as what remains of King Abdul-Aziz's sons and grandsons take their turn on the throne.

As the crown is passed on, prosperity, stability and reforms will likely be slow, given that all the potential monarchs are old and ailing, certainly unattractive to ambitious Saudi youth. More than half of its youth population is below the age of 18. This is dangerous in light of the Arab Spring, where Saudi youth, just like those in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, are seeking political and economic change. They are seeing Arab regimes fall all around them and this undoubtedly is awakening their appetite for change.

King Abdullah wisely managed to abort the Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia - or delay it - by ordering a massive increase in spending back in mid-2011, up to US$130 billion over the next 10-years. That muzzled dissent, and so did grassroots affection for the monarch in Saudi Arabia. Voices are already being heard demanding a constitutional monarchy in the oil-rich kingdom, with some even claiming that power should not remain firmly concentrated in the hands of the House of Saud. Young Saudi princes are harboring political ambitions, and so are Saudi Shi'ites, whose aspirations are being fanned continuously by Iran.

These issues need to be addressed by the House of Saud, in a serious and responsible manner. To date, nobody in the Saudi royal family has answers to any of these questions.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The aged king of Saudi Arabia led a burial ceremony Sunday for his brother, Crown Prince Nayef Abdul-Aziz, in the holy city of Mecca before his interment following evening prayers. He was the second heir to the throne to die outside the country in less than a year.

The 88-year-old King Abdullah gathered with royal family members and international envoys for the service. Prince Nayef's wrapped body was carried through crowds of relatives in a ceremony broadcast live on several television channels.

Abdullah has now outlived two appointed successors from among the elderly group of sons of Saudi's founding monarch, King Abdul-Aziz.

Health issues increasingly preoccupy the ruling inner circle in Saudi Arabia and show the vivid contrast between a leadership born at the dawn of Saudi's oil-rich age and the current population heavily weighted toward youth - with more than half under 25 years old.

Saudi authorities have led the efforts in the Western-allied Gulf to counter Arab Spring-inspired calls for reforms, using a combination of crackdowns, intimidation and lavish spending to offer state jobs and handouts. Gulf officials have proposed closer cooperation on security matters, including monitoring social media.

The 78-year-old Nayef, the country's interior minister, was considered wary of even the modest changes brought by King Abdullah, including pledges to allow women to vote and run in the next municipal elections in 2015. Women activists had planned Sunday to mark the anniversary of a campaign to challenge the ultraconservative kingdom's ban on female driving, but they postponed the protests because of the official mourning period for Nayef.

The leading figure as the next heir to the throne, 76-year-old Defense Minister Prince Salman, also is not viewed as a dynamic reformer willing to confront the behind-the-scenes power center in Saudi Arabia - the Islamic religious establishment that gives the monarchy its legitimacy to rule.

Later this week, a special council of royal family members is expected to convene to select the next crown prince of OPEC's top oil producer. The wider succession shake-up also will be closely watched.

It opens the possibility that a member of the so-called "third generation" - the thousands of younger descendants of King Abdul-Aziz - could move into positions traditionally considered in line for the throne.
In 2010, Salman had spinal surgery and has suffered at least one stroke, leaving him with limited movement in his left arm, said Simon Henderson, a Saudi affairs expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Saudi leadership keeps a tight lid on health-related issues. The cause of the crown prince's death Saturday in Geneva was not disclosed.

Nayef left the country in late May for what was described as a "personal vacation" that would include undisclosed medical tests. Earlier this year, he was treated at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, but no details have been officially disclosed.

Nayef's predecessor, Prince Sultan, 80, died in October in New York after an unspecified illness.

As interior minister since 1975, Nayef was in charge of internal security forces. He built up his power in the kingdom though his fierce crackdown against al-Qaida after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. and a broader campaign to prevent the growth of Islamic militancy among Saudis.

The 9/11 attacks at first strained ties between the two allies, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. For months, the kingdom refused to acknowledge that any of its citizens were involved in the suicide airline bombings. Nayef finally became the first Saudi official to publicly confirm that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. That came in a February, 2002 interview with The Associated Press.

Nayef took a leading role in combatting the al-Qaida branch in Yemen as well. In 2009, al-Qaida militants tried to assassinate his son, Prince Muhammad, who is deputy interior minister and commander of counterterrorism operations. A suicide bomber posing as a repentant militant blew himself up in the same room as the prince but failed to kill him.

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