Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s deputy prime minister and minister of defense and aviation, has died. He was born in Riyadh in 1928, according to the Saudi embassy in Washington, and was heir apparent to the throne.
State television in Saudi Arabia, which holds the world’s largest oil reserves, announced the death and then began playing verses from the Koran, as is the custom.
The prince died “outside the kingdom after suffering an illness,” the Royal Court said in a statement posted on the state-run Saudi Press Agency website. “Prayer will be held at Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Mosque in Riyadh after Asr prayer on Tuesday.”
Prince Sultan spent much of the period between 2008 and 2011 out of the country to receive medical care for an undisclosed illness. He traveled to New York City in June 2011 for a “private holiday” that included medical tests although the Saudi government didn’t release details about his health, according to the SPA. Time magazine reported in 2005 that he had colon cancer.
Sultan was named crown prince in 2005 following the death of his brother, King Fahd. He is the half brother of the kingdom’s current ruler, King Abdullah.
During his five decades as defense minister, Saudi Arabia’s policy involved relying on the U.S. for military protection in return for stable oil supplies. The kingdom spent $11.2 billion on U.S. weapons between 2005 and 2008, making it the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. arms during the period, according to the Congressional Research Service in Washington.
The U.S. Defense Department told Congress in October 2010 that it wants to sell as much as $60 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia. U.S. policy makers want the proposed sale to include F-15 fighter jets, attack helicopters, and satellite-guided smart bombs to counter Iranian military ambitions in the Persian Gulf and regional extremists. The weapon sales, if approved, could occur during a 10-year period.
He was educated in religion, culture and statecraft at the royal court of his father, King Abdulaziz Al Saud. His career in public service began in 1947, when he was appointed governor of Riyadh, whose main task is resolving disputes among the 7,000 members of the royal family. Five years later, he became the kingdom’s first minister of agriculture.
In 1955, Sultan was named the transportation minister, and oversaw the construction of a railway system linking Dammam on the Persian Gulf coast to the capital, Riyadh. He was the chairman of Saudi Arabian Railways Organization.
Sultan, who was appointed minister of defense and aviation in 1963, oversaw the expansion and modernization of the Saudi military into a force that participated in the U.S.-led war to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. Saudi troops also fought Houthi rebels along the nation’s southern border with Yemen in a three-month battle that ended in February 2010.
He is also known for more peaceful endeavors. In 1986 Sultan established the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development. He also founded the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water, a group that recognizes advancements toward sustainable water conservation.
In 2003, Prince Sultan invited Christians to practice their faith in the kingdom, although he added that building churches would contradict Saudi Arabia’s role as the center of the Islamic faith. “We are not against religions,” the SPA reported, citing a speech he delivered. “This country is the cradle of prophecy and the true message and we will not contradict this.”
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that has been ruled by six kings from the Al Saud family since the modern kingdom was formed in 1932.
King Abdullah, who was born in 1924, changed the kingdom’s succession rules in 2007 to give an appointed commission of princes, called the Allegiance Council, more power to select a new ruler. The council will be responsible for naming a crown prince, who will then be in line as the new king.
The new king must reveal his choice for crown prince to the commission within 10 days of taking the throne. The commission consists of appointed male descendants of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, the SPA said.
The decree provided greater transparency of the royal family’s decision-making process, which in the past was done through consensus building among princes.
Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is the next most senior member of the royal family after Sultan and the likely successor as crown prince, according to Hani Sabra, Middle East and Africa analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group.
Sultan had four wives. One of his sons is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1983 to 2005. Another son, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, is assistant minister of defense and aviation for military affairs.
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