By ABDULLAH AL-SHIHRI and LEE KEATH, Associated Press
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, the hard-line interior minister who spearheaded Saudi Arabia's fierce crackdown crushing al-Qaida's branch in the country after the 9/11 attacks and then rose to become next in line to the throne, has died. He was in his late 70s.
Nayef's death unexpectedly reopens the question of succession in this crucial U.S. ally and oil powerhouse for the second time in less than a year. The 88-year-old King Abdullah has now outlived two designated successors, despite ailments of his own. Now a new crown prince must be chosen from among his brothers and half-brothers, all the sons of Saudi Arabia's founder, Abdul-Aziz.
The figure believed most likely to be tapped as the new heir is Prince Salman, the current defense minister who previously served for decades in the powerful post of governor of Riyadh, the capital. The crown prince will be chosen by the Allegiance Council, an assembly of Abdul-Aziz's sons and some of his grandchildren.
It also opens the possibility of moving a member of the so-called "third generation" — the grandchildren of the country's founding monarch — one step closer to taking the leadership of one of the West's most crucial Arab allies.
"This is the big question," said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Will this now bring a member of Saudi's younger generation into the succession path to the throne?"
A statement by the royal family said Nayef died Saturday in a hospital abroad. Saudi-funded pan-Arab TV station Al-Arabiya later confirmed he died in Geneva.
Nayef had been out of the country since late May, when he went on a trip that was described as a "personal vacation" that would include medical tests. He travelled abroad frequently in recent years for tests but authorities never reported what ailments he may have been suffering from.
Nayef had a reputation for being a hard-liner and a conservative. He was believed to be closer than many of his brothers to the powerful Wahhabi religious establishment that gives legitimacy to the royal family, and he at times worked to give a freer hand to the religious police who enforce strict social rules.
His elevation to crown prince in November 2011, after the death of his brother Sultan, had raised worries among liberals in the kingdom that, if he ever became king, he would halt or even roll back reforms that Abdullah had enacted.
Soon after becoming crown prince, Nayef vowed at a conference of clerics that Saudi Arabia would "never sway from and never compromise on" its adherence to the puritanical, ultraconservative Wahhabi doctrine. The ideology, he proclaimed "is the source of the kingdom's pride, success and progress."
Nayef had expressed some reservations about some of the reforms by Abdullah, who made incremental steps to bring more democracy to the country and increase women's rights. Nayef said he saw no need for elections in the kingdom or for women to sit on the Shura Council, an unelected advisory body to the king that is the closest thing to a parliament.
His top concern was security in the kingdom and maintaining a fierce bulwark against Shiite powerhouse, Iran, according to U.S. Embassy assessments of Nayef.
"A firm authoritarian at heart," was the description of Nayef in a 2009 Embassy report on him, leaked by the whistleblower site WikiLeaks.
"He harbors anti-Shia biases and his worldview is colored by deep suspicion of Iran," it said. "Nayef promotes a vision for Saudi society under the slogan of 'intellectual security,' which he advocates as needed to 'purge aberrant ideas'" and combat extremism, it added, noting that his was in contrast to Abdullah's strategy emphasizing "dialogue, tolerance of differences, and knowledge-based education that is objectionable to many conservatives."
Nayef, who was interior minister in charge of internal security forces since 1975, built up his power in the kingdom though his fierce crackdown against al-Qaida's branch in the country following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States 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. For months, the kingdom refused to acknowledge any of its citizens were involved in the suicide airline bombings, until finally Nayef became the first Saudi official to publicly confirm that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, in a February 2002 interview with The Associated Press.