Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, first in line to succeed King Abdullah, has died, according to the royal family. He was in his late 70's.
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?"
Salman apparently has good relations with both the conservatives and the western-oriented business community. But whoever takes Nayef's place will have to deal with a menacing neighbor in Iran as well as another Shia state next door in Iraq. The Kingdom's defenses need shoring up and choosing defense minister Salman makes sense in that regard also.
Abdullah is in his late 80's and has been on a reduced work schedule for years. He is reported to be in good health otherwise so the matter of succession is not urgent. Salman would be expected to carry on with the modest reforms implemented by Abdullah relating to women and political freedom, but not go much beyond that.