Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud died at dawn yesterday, the country’s royal court said in a statement carried by state media.
Sultan, whose age was officially given as 80 and who died in New York of colon cancer early yesterday Saudi time, had been heir to the throne of the world’s top oil exporter since 2005, but was a central figure in Saudi decision-making since becoming defense minister in 1962.
“With deep sorrow and sadness the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz mourns the death of his brother and his Crown Prince Sultan ... who died at dawn this morning Saturday outside the kingdom following an illness,” the statement carried on state news agency SPA and state television said.
Sultan’s health had declined in recent years and he spent long periods outside the kingdom for medical treatment. A 2009 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks described him as “to all intents and purposes incapacitated.”
King Abdullah is now expected to call to session an untested “Allegiance Council” to appoint his new heir, widely expected to be Prince Nayef, the veteran interior minister.
Set up in 2006 soon after Abdullah became king, the Allegiance Council is tasked with voting to approve the monarch’s choice of crown prince or nominating its own choice instead.
The Allegiance Council consists of a representative from each of the 34 branches of the Al Saud ruling family who were born to Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.
Because some members are thought to be traveling, the council might not be able to convene to approve a new crown prince for some days.
Previously, the succession was decided only by the king and a small coterie of top princes.
“The succession will be orderly,” said Asaad al-Shamlan, a professor of political science in Riyadh. “The point of reference will be the ruling of the Allegiance Council. It seems to me most likely Nayef will be chosen. If he becomes crown prince, I don’t expect much immediate change.”
Prince Nayef has been interior minister since 1975 and was appointed second deputy prime minister in 2009, a position usually given to the man considered third in line to rule.
Thought to be more conservative than either King Abdullah or Prince Sultan, Prince Nayef is in his late 70s and has managed the kingdom’s day-to-day affairs during absences of both the king and crown prince.
Saudi television broke its schedules early yesterday to broadcast Koranic verses accompanied by footage of the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.
Funeral services will be held in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Tuesday, SPA said.
King Abdullah is in his late 80s and underwent back surgery earlier this month, but has been pictured since then in apparently good health.
The king was absent for three months late last year while he underwent treatment for a herniated disc that caused blood to accumulate around his spine.
Unlike in European monarchies, the line of succession does not move directly from father to eldest son, but has moved down a line of brothers born to the kingdom’s founder Ibn Saud, who died in 1953.
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