The death of the heir to the Saudi throne underlines the growing frailty of the ruling generation of the royal family and highlights the contradiction that a major U.S. ally in the Middle East is an autocratic monarchy with a medieval-style constitution.
Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was 78 when he died Saturday. He was the second crown prince to die within a year.
The man appointed Monday to be Nayef’s successor as crown prince and heir to the throne, Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, is 76, and Prince Sultan, the crown prince before Nayef, was 81 when he died in October. The monarch, King Abdullah, is 88.
“The death of two crown princes within nine months underlines the actuarial problem” faced by the desert kingdom, said Simon Henderson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The ruling generation of the House of Saud is “getting older and older, which means their health and intellectual acuity is not at its peak,” he said.
Nayef was also interior minister. He will be succeeded by Prince Ahmed, age 72.
Nayef, Ahmed, Sultan and Salman - along with former intelligence chief Prince Turki - are all among the so-called Sudairi Seven - the seven sons of the most prolific of more than 20 wives of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz.
Since his death in 1953, Abdulaziz has been succeeded five times by his own sons, but the succession has yet to jump the generational gap to his grandsons.
“They need to tell them, ‘This is not a good business model for succession,’ ” he said, “The Saudis won’t like to hear it, but the stakes at the moment [in the region] are so high that the U.S. needs to be the wise friend.”
He said naming one of Abdulaziz’s grandson to be third in line to the throne would help ease the badly needed transition to a new generation of leadership.
The problem, he added, is that there was no agreement on which bloodline the third generation successor should be drawn from. Abdulaziz had at least 30 sons.
The issue is doubly important at the moment because of both international and domestic factors, said Frederick Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Internationally, Saudi Arabia had “shifted into high gear in an effort to manage the crisis” that Arab Spring uprisings elsewhere presented to the royal family.
Domestically, the social fabric of the patronage networks that have sustained the kingdom’s stability were being undermined by the growing number of unemployed young people and the information and media revolution heralded by mobile telecommunications and the Internet.
“The old bargain that defined the kingdom is on increasingly shaky ground,” Mr. Wehrey warned.