* His death not expected to trigger any major policy changes
* Defence Minister Prince Salman is most likely next heir
* Successor likely to be chosen in coming days
(Recasts throughout, adds Obama statement, analyst comment)
By Angus McDowall
RIYADH, June 16 Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince
Nayef, a hawkish interior minister who crushed al Qaeda in the
world's top oil exporter, died on Saturday eight months after
becoming heir to the throne, paving the way for a more
As with previous successions, the selection process is
likely to be smooth, with King Abdullah and a family council
expected to start work on the appointment of a new crown prince
Nayef's most likely successor is the pragmatic Prince
Salman, 76, a brother of King Abdullah who was made defence
minister in November after more than five decades as Riyadh
governor, analysts and diplomats in the kingdom said.
The new crown prince will become heir to a king who is 89
years old in a country that faces a range of tough long-term
challenges at home and turmoil in the region.
Saudi policymakers are grappling with the threat from al
Qaeda, unrest among minority Shi'ite Muslims and youth
Meanwhile they are engaged in a rivalry with regional
powerhouse Iran as they navigate the aftermath of last year's
Arab uprisings including revolts in Bahrain and Yemen, both on
"With deep sorrow and grief ... King Abdullah mourns his
brother ... Crown Prince Nayef who passed to the mercy of God on
Saturday outside the kingdom," said a royal court statement.
A source close to the royal family said Nayef had died
suddenly in Geneva after receiving treatment for a knee
complaint. He was thought to be 78.
U.S. President Barack Obama issued a statement of
condolences, saying that under Nayef's leadership, "the United
States and Saudi Arabia developed a strong and effective
partnership in the fight against terrorism, one that has saved
countless American and Saudi lives."
The U.S. embassy in Riyadh said Washington had "lost a close
The death was not expected to trigger any major changes to
the kingdom's energy policy or to key relationships with the
United States and other allies.
"The fundamental principle that the Saudis operate under is
stability," said Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Riyadh from
2001-03. "So they will, I'm sure, develop a consensus among the
senior members of the family over an orderly succession. That
has likely been forming in recent months in any event."
At stake is the future direction of a country that
possesses more than one fifth of proven global oil reserves.
Seen as a key ally for the West, Saudi Arabia has provided
critical intelligence to foil al Qaeda plots, bankrolled
pro-Western Arab governments and has supported Washington's
attempts to isolate Iran.
To liberals, Nayef, a son of the state's founder, was the
forbidding face of a conservative establishment that opposed any
real moves toward democracy or greater women's rights, oversaw
the fearsome religious police and took a hard line against
members of the Shi'ite Muslim minority.
A 2009 assessment of Nayef made by the U.S. embassy and
released by WikiLeaks said he "displays signs of personal
prejudice against the Shia".
On his watch, the conservative kingdom emerged from last
year's Arab uprisings looking like one of the most stable states
in the Middle East.
"He supervised the security affairs of the state for more
than 30 years. He scored a lot of successes there. Especially in
fighting al Qaeda," said Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi analyst.
Analysts said Nayef's death meant King Abdullah was likely
to call on the family Allegiance Council, which he formed in
2007, to affirm his choice of a new crown prince, probably in
the coming days.
"Salman will take over as crown prince and it will be
seamless. I don't see any major ramifications," said Theodore
Karasik, a security analyst for the Dubai-based INEGMA group.
Since King Abdullah is already 89, his crown prince would
probably assume a major role in state affairs quickly.
As Riyadh's governor for five decades, Nayef gained
considerable experience dealing with foreign diplomats, tribal
leaders and important clerics, three important constituencies
for any Saudi leader.
"It appeared to me he had a good handle on the delicate
balancing act he had to do to move society forward while being
respectful of its traditions and conservative ways," said former
Saudi Arabia does not practice official mourning periods or
close government offices after the death of a senior royal.
However, when Crown Prince Sultan died last October there
was a three-day condolences period when foreign dignitaries and
tribal and religious leaders paid their respects to King
Abdullah before his new heir was announced.
After Nayef's death, state TV played Koranic verses and
aired footage of pilgrims circling the great mosque in Mecca,
Islam's holiest site, where Nayef will be buried on Sunday.
In a statement, British Prime Minister David Cameron
expressed his government's condolences over Nayef's death,
praising his "leadership and dedication".
Nayef's younger half brother Prince Ahmed, who is deputy
interior minister, is seen as a likely candidate to take over
the interior ministry portfolio, while his son, Mohammed, is
Like his brothers King Abdullah and Salman, Nayef was one of
the nearly 40 sons of Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn
Saud, who established the kingdom in 1935.
Although most Saudi watchers say it is very likely that
Salman will become the kingdom's leader after King Abdullah, it
is uncertain who would then be seen as next in line.
Although nearly 20 of King Abdulaziz's sons are still alive,
few have the requisite experience to lead the country.
"The option is to just keep cycling down the sons of
Abdulaziz. You've still got four left that you could
theoretically keep putting in as king," said Michael Stephens,
researcher Qatar-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Amena
Bakr and Andrew Hammond; Editing by Sami Aboudi, Samia Nakhoul
and Robin Pomeroy)