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Sun 23 Oct 2011 07:41 AM

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Saudi Arabia's Prince Nayef tipped to be heir

Interior minister seen as next in line for the throne after Crown Prince Sultan's death

Saudi Arabia's Prince Nayef tipped to be heir
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Sultan has died, the royal court
said on Saturday, and Interior Minister and reputed conservative Prince Nayef
was expected to become the new heir to the throne in the world's biggest oil
exporter.

Sultan, whose age was officially given as 80 and who died in
New York of colon cancer early on Saturday Saudi time, had been a central
figure in Saudi decision-making since becoming defence minister in 1962 and was
made crown prince in 2005.

Saudi analysts predicted an orderly transition at a time
when much of the Middle East is in turmoil after mass uprisings against
autocratic leaders by citizens demanding democracy.

Saudi King Abdullah reacted to the "Arab Spring"
by ordering spending of $130 billion on social benefits, housing and jobs, but
he and his new crown prince face challenges from al Qaeda militants, a restless
Shi'ite minority and civil conflict in neighbouring Yemen.

Saudi Arabia is also locked in a confrontation with Shi'ite
Muslim power Iran, accused by the United States of plotting to kill the
kingdom's ambassador to Washington.

Earlier this month, the Saudi Interior Ministry accused an
unnamed foreign power, widely assumed to mean Iran, of instigating protests by
the Saudi Shi'ite minority in which 14 people, including 11 security officers,
were injured.

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 "for all intents and purposes
incapacitated".

King Abdullah is now likely to summon the untested
Allegiance Council of the ruling al-Saud family, set up in 2006 to make the
succession process more transparent, to approve his preferred heir. In the
past, the succession was decided in secret by the king and a coterie of
powerful princes.

Most analysts believe the new crown prince will be Nayef,
who was appointed second deputy prime minister in 2009, a position usually
given to the man who is third-in-line to rule.

"The problem is (the Allegiance Council) is a secret
organisation that consists of members of the royal family and Saudi society has
no say," said Madawi al-Rashid, author of A History of Saudi Arabia and
critic of the ruling family. "Some sections of Saudi Arabia are worried.
Nayef is known for security solutions. His rhetoric always invokes the sword.”

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Nayef has been interior minister since 1975 and has managed
the kingdom's day-to-day affairs during the absences of both the king and crown
prince.

He has gained a reputation as being more conservative than
either King Abdullah or Sultan, with close ties to the country's powerful
Wahhabi clergy. But as king he might follow a more moderate line in keeping
with the al-Saud tradition of governing by consensus, analysts say.

"The succession will be orderly," said Asaad
al-Shamlan, a political science professor 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."

"Things are in order, thanks to the wise leadership
represented in King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz," Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, a
brother of both Abdullah and Sultan and member of the Allegiance Council, told
reporters.

King Abdullah, who is in his late 80s, underwent back
surgery earlier this month but left hospital on Saturday to continue treatment
at a royal clinic, the Royal Court said in a statement carried by the official
SPA news agency. He has been pictured since his surgery in apparently good
health.

"The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah
bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ... left the King Abdulaziz Medical City this Saturday
evening ... after God graced him with health to continue treatment in the
clinic of his palace," it said.

When the Allegiance Council convenes, the 34 branches of the
ruling family born to the kingdom's founder King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud will each
have a vote to confirm the king's nominee for crown prince or appoint their own
candidate.

Saudi television broke its normal schedule early on Saturday
to broadcast Koranic verses and footage of pilgrims circling the Kaaba in
Mecca, Islam's holiest site, before announcing the crown prince's death.

"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," said a Saudi royal court statement carried
on official media.

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The Saudi stock market was unaffected by the news, and the
TASI all-share index closed nearly half a percent up. Shops, schools and
universities were open as normal. Funeral services for Sultan will be held on
Tuesday in Riyadh.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her
condolences over the death, saying US-Saudi ties are strong.

"The Crown Prince was a strong leader and a good friend
to the United States over many years, as well as a tireless champion for his
country," Clinton said during a visit to Tajikistan, in the first official
US comment on his death.

"Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is strong and
enduring and we will look forward to working with the [Saudi] leadership for
many years to come," she told a news conference.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in statement carried by
the official news agency WAFA, said: "We have lost ... a friend and defender
of the Palestinian cause."

Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Turkey and Oman sent
messages of condolence.

King Abdullah has gained a reputation as a cautious reformer
since becoming de facto regent of the conservative Islamic country in 1995 and
as king since 2005.

He was absent for three months in late 2010 and early 2011
following treatment for a herniated disc that caused blood to accumulate around
his spine.

Unlike European monarchies, the line of succession does not
move from father to eldest son, but down a line of brothers born to the
kingdom's founder Ibn Saud, who died in 1953.

"The stability of Saudi Arabia is more important than
ever," said Turad al-Amri, a political analyst in Saudi Arabia. "All
the countries around it are crumbling. The balance of power is changing in the
Middle East."

Sultan's death also means King Abdullah will have to select
new defence and aviation ministers, key posts in a country that spends billions
of dollars on weapons procurement.

Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the son of the late crown prince,
has been deputy defence minister since 2001 and is one candidate to replace his
father as minister.

"There traditionally has been a way of balancing the
power relationships within the family that are important," said Robert
Jordan, US ambassador to Riyadh from 2001-03. "So I don't think we should
automatically assume that Khaled bin Sultan will become the defence minister,
although he has much experience and his father was in place for many
years."