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Saudi Arabia's crown prince dies

Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the longtime pillar of Saudi Arabia's ruling family, is believed to have had cancer.

It is customary for the king to signal his preference for the next crown prince by naming a Second Deputy Prime Minister. However, Abdullah did not do this for four years until finally, in 2009, he gave the title to Interior Minister Prince Nayef.

Nayef is expected by many royal watchers to become the next Crown Prince, and confirmed in that position by the Allegiance Council if King Abdullah opts to call the Council into session.

This new body was established under the reforms King Abdullah introduced in 2006 to regulate future royal transitions. Comprised of 35 sons and grandsons of the country’s founder, King Abdul Aziz, the Council was intended as a way of bringing the second-generation grandsons of King Abdul Aziz into the pool of potential kings and giving them a say in choosing future monarchs. Its chairman is Prince Mishaal Abdul Aziz, the eldest living son of King Abdul Aziz.

Some grandsons are eager to try for the brass ring themselves, or at least see someone of their generation become king. Until this happens, there are fears that the kingdom’s aging, first-generation princes--now mostly in their 70s and 80s — could turn Saudi Arabia into a gerontocracy as each takes his turn as king, miring the kingdom in political stagnation.

Upon the death of a king, the Council should meet to ratify the crown prince’s ascension to the throne and select a new crown prince. These new procedures may make succession more orderly, but not necessarily more transparent as the Council’s deliberations are secret, though minutes are supposed to be taken.

This new procedure is a break with how Saudi crown princes have been selected since the country’s modern founding in 1932, that is, the brother next in age to the reigning king became crown prince--unless he gave up his claim to become monarch or was regarded as unfit for the job.

Now, however, age seniority no longer is the sole criterion for choosing a crown prince. That brings some uncertainty into predicting who will be future crown princes. But this time, many Saudis suspect that secret negotiations within the royal family have been going on for months and already produced a consensus on Sultan’s successor.