The heir to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, died undergoing treatment for illness in New York. The death of the prince, who was in his 80s, opens questions about the succession in the critical, oil-rich U.S. ally.
Sultan was the younger half-brother of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who is has also been ailing and underwent back surgery last week.
The most likely candidate to replace Sultan as Abdullah's successor is Prince Nayef, the powerful interior minister in charge of internal security forces, who is said to be closer to Islamic conservatives than the king. The king gave Nayef — also his half-brother — the implicit nod in 2009 by naming him second deputy prime minister, traditionally the post of the second in line to the throne.
State TV announced that Sultan died abroad, without specifying where. Saudi official circles in Riyadh said he passed away at a hospital in New York. According to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from January 2010, Sultan had been receiving treatment for colon cancer since 2009.
Sultan, who was also deputy prime minister and defense minister, struggled with health issues for years, though officials never confirmed he had cancer. He underwent surgery in New York in 2009 and spent nearly a year abroad recuperating in the United States and at a palace in Agadir, Morocco, before returning to the kingdom.
The palace said the king, with "deep sorrow" mourns "the loss of his brother and Crown Prince, His Royal Highness Prince Sultan Abdul-Aziz Al Saud," the palace said. The statement, carried on the official Saudi Press Agency, added that Sultan's funeral will be held Tuesday at a Riyadh mosque.
For the first time the mechanism of picking the next crown prince is not entirely clear — though the end result is in any case likely to be Nayef.
It is possible the king will for the first time put the decision of his heir to the Allegiance Council, a body Abdullah created as one of his reforms, made up of his brothers, half-brothers and nephews with a mandate to determine the succession. That would open the choice up to a degree of debate within the top echelons of the royal family.
Traditionally the king names his successor. Abdullah formed the council in order to modernize the process and give a wider voice in the choice.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed American condolences, and her British counterpart William Hague said he was saddened to hear of the death. Britain's Prince Charles sent his condolences in a personal letter to the Saudi king.
"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. He will be missed," Clinton said from Tajikistan on a Central Asia tour. "Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is strong and enduring and we will look forward to working with the leadership for many years to come."
Saudi Arabia has been ruled since 1953 by the sons of its founder, King Abdul-Aziz, who had over 40 sons by multiple wives. But that generation is getting up in years. Nayef is 78, and the youngest of the Abdul-Aziz sons seen as qualified to rule were born in the 1940s.
Sultan's death comes amid questions about the king's health. Last week, King Abdullah underwent back surgery in Riyadh. The SPA news agency said the operation was to treat a loose vertebra in his back. Abdullah also had two back surgeries late last year in New York City.
Anyone who rises to the throne is likely to maintain the kingdom's close alliance with the United States.
But it would have an internal impact. Abdullah has been a reformer, making cautious changes to improve the position of women — such as granting them to right to vote in elections scheduled for 2015 — and seeking modernize the kingdom. That has brought some backlash from the ultraconservative Wahhabi clerics who give the royal family the religious legitimacy needed to rule.
Nayef, in contrast, has a reputation for closer ties to the clerics.
If Nayef is named crown prince, it could stoke tensions between those backing Abdullah's changes and those opposing any deviation from the kingdom's strict interpretations of Islam.
Nayef led an aggressive crackdown on Islamic militants who opened a campaign of bombings in the kingdoms following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.
He also maintains a hard line against regional rival, the Shiite power Iran, claiming earlier this year that Tehran was encouraging protests among Saudi Arabia's minority Shiites. Nayef was deeply involved in the kingdom's decision in March to send military forces into neighboring Bahrain to help crush pro-reform demonstrations led by tiny island nation's majority Shiites against its Sunni rulers — which Gulf Arab leaders accuse of having ties to Iran.
In August, Nayef accepted undisclosed libel damages from Britain's newspaper The Independent over an article which accused him of ordering police chiefs to shoot and kill unarmed demonstrators in Saudi Arabia.
Sultan was long seen as a powerful aspirant for the throne. When Fahd became king in 1982, Sultan had hoped to be named crown prince. But instead Fahd appointed their half-brother, Abdullah.
Sultan challenged that decision, but in the end the sons of Abdul-Aziz closed ranks, aware that a direct confrontation with Abdullah could tear the family apart.
When Fahd died and Abdullah ascended to the throne, Sultan was named crown prince and heir.
Sultan was the kingdom's defense minister in 1990 when U.S. forces deployed in Saudi Arabia to defend it against Iraqi forces that had overrun Kuwait. His son, Prince Khaled, served as the top Arab commander in operation Desert Storm, in which U.S., Saudi and other Arab forces drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
In May 2004, the royal court announced that Sultan was discharged from a Jiddah hospital after an operation to remove a cyst from his intestines. In a rare move, Saudi television showed footage of the prince, dressed in a traditional white robe and sitting in an armchair, receiving greetings from a number of Saudi dignitaries. A few days before that, state-guided media showed photos of the prince in his hospital bed, apparently to counter rumors about his health.
Sultan was born in Riyadh in 1928, according to the defense ministry's website. But official reports vary, some say he was born in 1931, others have him as being 85 years old.
As defense minister, Sultan closed multibillion deals to establish the modern Saudi armed forces, including land, air, naval and air defense forces.
On more than one occasion, the deals implicated several of his sons in corruption scandals — charges they have denied.
Sultan is survived by 32 children from multiple wives. They include Bandar, the former ambassador to the United States who now heads the National Security Council, and Khaled, Sultan's assistant in the Defense Ministry.