Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, is waiting for a successor to the crown prince as the ruling family gathers tomorrow for prayers after the death of Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The crown prince’s death on Oct. 22 has set in motion “a challenging moment for Saudi Arabia,” Tarik Yousef, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, said in an interview in Jordan. “It’s time to address succession questions and react quickly. Observers are anxious about a political vacuum.”
Prince Nayef, born in 1934, is the most likely candidate among the older generation of the Al Saud family. King Abdullah, who is 87, left a hospital in Riyadh last week after undergoing surgery to relieve back pain. He travelled to the U.S. in November for three months of medical care.
The death of Sultan comes after Saudi Arabia, which has the biggest economy in the Arab world, announced $130 billion in social and housing spending after youth-driven uprisings toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya this year. It has also increased oil supply to help meet rising demand after exports from Libya collapsed during the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.
Oil Market Stability
The Saudis will want to convey a “message of continuity in terms of their economic policies, and reiterate their commitment to oil market stability at a time of global uncertainty and OPEC divisions,” Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist at Jeddah-based National Commercial Bank, said in a telephone interview. “There are certain policies that they have agreed on over the last few years and months, and they won’t change this.”
Oil for December delivery was at $87.86 a barrel, up 46 cents on the New York Mercantile Exchange at 11:38 a.m. London time. Prices are down 3.9 percent this year. Brent crude for December settlement advanced 76 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $110.32 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange.
Saudi state television announced the death of Sultan, who is also minister of defense and aviation, then began playing verses from the Koran, as is the custom. The prince was born in Riyadh in 1928, according to the Saudi Embassy in Washington. He will be buried in an unmarked grave, as stipulated by the Sunni Wahabbi version of Islam.
Sultan died “outside the kingdom after suffering an illness,” the Royal Court said in a statement posted on the official Saudi Press Agency website. “Prayer will be held at Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Mosque in Riyadh after Asr prayer on Tuesday.”
U.S. President Barack Obama called King Abdullah to express his condolences and the White House announced that Vice President Joe Biden will lead an American delegation to Riyadh during the mourning period.
During Sultan’s five decades as defense minister, Saudi Arabia relied 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.
Six kings have ruled Saudi Arabia since it was established in 1932. When King Fahd died in 2005 after ruling the kingdom for 23 years, the Royal Court announced the same day that Abdullah would become the monarch. The 1992 basic law stipulates that the king must be a son or grandson of the kingdom’s founder.
“The succession scenario has been set in motion,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said in a phone interview from Dubai. “It’s pretty obvious, based on what we know, that the next crown prince will be Nayef because of his credentials. I expect the transition to be smooth.”
Saudi Arabia’s benchmark stock index, the Tadawul All Share Index, rose 0.5 percent at the close in Riyadh yesterday and was up less than 0.1 percent at 12:57 p.m.
Nayef is the next-most senior member of the royal family after Sultan, according to Hani Sabra, Middle East and Africa analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group. Nayef has controlled the Interior Ministry since 1975.
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 would be responsible for naming a crown prince, who will then be next in line as the new king.
“There is a possibility, and I don’t know how possible, that the king may decide to enact the Allegiance Council,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a political science professor at King Saud University. “The process will be delayed if the king goes with this. With oil markets and the turmoil in the Middle East, they don’t want to give an impression of uncertainty.”
The council consists of appointed male descendants of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, the SPA said. In March 2009, Abdullah appointed Nayef as second deputy prime minister, a role that makes him the most senior Saudi royal in the absence of the king and the crown prince.
The decree aims to give greater transparency to the royal family’s decision-making process, which in the past was done through consensus-building among princes. Abdullah’s son, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, is the kingdom’s deputy foreign minister, while Sultan’s son, Prince Khaled, is the deputy defense minister. Nayef’s son, Prince Mohammad, is the assistant interior minister.
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 in June for a “private holiday” that included medical tests, though 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 that year following the death of his brother, King Fahd. Sultan 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.
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 Persia Gulf and regional extremists.
“King Abdullah will use the crown prince’s passing as an opportunity to reform the Ministry of Defense and Aviation,” Danny Sebright, vice president of the New York-based Cohen Group, said in an interview in Jordan. “What we will see is a process over the next number of weeks, months where there will be some leadership changes at the ministry.” The group was formed by former U.S. Secretary of Defense, William S. Cohen.
Sultan 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.