October 25, 2011
October 25, 2011
The funeral of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz on Tuesday sets the stage for an eventual generational shift in the leadership of the world’s top oil exporter as world dignitaries were arriving in Saudi Arabia to offer condolences for the late Prince, whose successor is yet to be named.
The body of Prince Sultan, who died of colon cancer in New York on Saturday, was flown back to Riyadh late Monday. Hundreds of men, including Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, gathered on the airport runway to watch as the coffin was lowered into an ambulance and driven away, Reuters reported.
Saudi state television al-Ekhbariya aired live pictures from Riyadh air base where Sultan’s body was taken from the plane in an ambulance.
It is the first time that the seat of the heir to the throne becomes vacant in the history of the oil-rich Gulf state.
Sultan’s funeral will be held before the afternoon prayer in the conservative Islamic state and his body will then be taken away for burial.
Saudi Arabia, which dominates world oil markets and holds profound influence over Muslims through its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, faces turbulence in its neighbors and a confrontation with regional rival Iran.
King Abdullah appears set to appoint veteran Interior Minister Prince Nayef as crown prince and heir, but his choice of a defense minister to replace Sultan may signal how the conservative Islamic state manages the transition to its future leaders.
Sultan’s death comes also after Abdullah created in 2006 the Allegiance Council, comprised of 35 princes charged with deciding together with the reigning king who will be crown prince.
“The rules of the Allegiance Council stipulate that the crown prince would be chosen by the council,” said Fahd al-Harthi, head of the Riyadh-based ASBAR Centre for Studies, Research and Communications.
“But the royal decree of this system has stated that the current king and crown prince are not forced to abide by this regulation,” he told AFP.
King Abdullah, Sultan and Nayef have run the country since the late King Fahd fell ill in 1995, but the monarch is in his late 80s and has spent three months abroad this year recovering from a back problem that again required surgery last week.
He remains firmly in control of the kingdom, but the focus will increasingly fall on Nayef, who is thought to be in the mid-seventies, and some younger princes.
Chief among them is Prince Salman, the Riyadh governor who is a full brother of Sultan and Nayef and is seen as next most important in a ruling family that has prized seniority since it was founded by King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud in 1932.
Reforms enacted by King Abdullah have aimed to strengthen private sector growth and loosen the grip of conservative clerics on the education system and judiciary.
World dignitaries were arriving in the Knigdom on Monday to offer their condolences for the late Prince.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak were among the world leaders heading to the Saudi capital to offer condolences.
Relations between the Sunni-dominated kingdom and Shiite Iran, its arch rival across the Gulf, are tense following an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the kingdom’s envoy to Washington.
Saudi Arabia also keeps a close eye on developments in neighboring Bahrain and Yemen, as well as other countries hit by the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings demanding regime change.
Saudi Arabia was largely spared from the wave of popular protest movements, which has so far unseated three Arab leaders.