Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz has died. The half-brother of King Abdullah was in his mid-80's and died in New York City, where he had gone for treatment of recurring medical problems.
The Saudi monarchy says King Abdullah is mourning the death of his brother Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, a key player in Saudi politics. The death of the planned successor, who served as both defense minister and deputy prime minister, throws into question the future leadership of a country facing simmering unrest at home and challenges from regional rival Iran.
The immediate reaction in Saudi Arabia was one of public grief. Riyadh resident Husam al Mezani was among those mourning the man who not only dominated Saudi security matters for decades, but was also known for his many charitable projects.
Al Mezani said the crown prince will be missed by young and old, poor and sick.
As for who might succeed Sultan as crown prince, King Abdullah, 86, has indicated his preferences, naming interior minister Prince Nayaf as second deputy prime minister in 2009, a traditional post in the chain of succession. The decision will be made by a special council, a change in the succession laws made by the current king.
King Abdullah, the late crown prince and Prince Nayaf are all the sons of the founder of the modern Arab nation, Abdul-Aziz, known as Ibn Saud.
Prince Nayef is said to have closer ties to Saudi Arabia's powerful, puritanical clerics than the king, who has ushered in reforms, most recently that women could take part in elections in coming years.
Political observers have expected whoever is chosen would likely continue the close alliance between the oil-rich nation and the United States. That relationship was strengthened during the late crown prince's nearly 50 year tenure as defense minister, during which the kingdom bought billions of dollars worth of American weapons and other military equipment.
According to Jeddah-based journalist and columnist, Samar Fatany, Prince Sultan's central role in the security of the nation had a profound impact on his countrymen. "The crown prince was a symbol of security and stability to the country. He has developed our defense. All the army, the security, defense of the country was all in his hand," he said.
Fatany noted that even during the past few years, when the prince was sidelined by illness, his policies continued, a sign, she says, of unity in the royal family. "I think it is important for us all to realize that the royal family has a strong, cohesive relationship and they have their own council. Of course, maybe we don't know what goes behind the scenes in the council that they have. However, so far what we have seen as a nation was a sense of solidarity and a sense of respect between the younger princes and the elder," he said.
Prince Sultan's son Khaled is expected to take over his father's duties at the defense ministry. Another son, Prince Bandar, served as ambassador to the United States for more than 20 years.
President Barack Obama was among the world leaders paying tribute to Prince Sultan, referring to him as a "valued friend of the United States" and "a strong supporter of the deep and enduring partnership" between the two countries.
The family's close relationship with the United States, however, had its costs. Prince Sultan was key in allowing U.S. troops to launch the 1991 Gulf War on Iraq from Saudi territory. The presence of American troops in the home of the holiest shrines of Islam was a chief reason the terrorist group al-Qaida said it targeted the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The late Crown Prince had been ill for several years. He went to New York earlier this year for unspecified medical treatment.
Saudi officials say funeral services will be held Tuesday.