Saudi Arabia in mourning
Dubai - Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Sultan has died, the royal court said on Saturday, opening the way for Interior Minister and reputed conservative Prince Nayef to become the likely heir apparent of the world's top oil exporter.
Prince 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 rest of the Middle East is in turmoil as populations have risen up against their autocratic leaders.
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".
The country's ruler, King Abdullah, is now likely to summon an untested Allegiance Council of the ruling al-Saud family to approve his preferred heir.
Most analysts believe that is likely to be Prince 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 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."
He has gained a reputation as more conservative than either King Abdullah or Prince Sultan, with a close relationship with the country's powerful clergy. However, as king he might be more likely to follow to a moderate line in keeping with the al-Saud tradition of governing by consensus, say analysts.
King Abdullah set up the Allegiance Council in 2006 to make the family's complex succession process more transparent. In the past, the succession was decided in secret by the king and a coterie of powerful princes, before being made public.
Under the new system, 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.
Prince Nayef has been interior minister since 1975 and has managed the kingdom's day-to-day affairs during absences of both the king and crown prince.
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.
However, as the royal court prepared for the transition of Prince Sultan's role to a new crown prince, shops, schools and universities were open as normal in Riyadh.
"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.
Funeral services for Sultan, who died on Friday New York time, will be held on Tuesday in Riyadh. An official at the Saudi embassy in Washington confirmed that Prince Sultan had died in New York but declined to give further details.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her condolences over the death, saying US-Saudi ties are strong.
Custodian of the two holy mosques
"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.
Kuwait, where the ruling family has been allied to the al-Saud for more than a century, said it would mark Sultan's death with three days of official mourning.
Jordan's King Abdullah said: "I would like to express my sincere condolences to my brother, the custodian of the two holy mosques. Jordan mourns the passing of such an Arab statesman and a leader and a champion of the Arab and Muslim cause."
Saudi King Abdullah, who is in his late 80s, had undergone a back surgery earlier this month but has been pictured since then in apparently good health.
"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."
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 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.
Sultan's death also means King Abdullah will have to select a new defence and aviation minister, 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."