Saudi Arabia has named a new crown prince — the tough-talking Interior Minister known for cracking down on Islamist militants and resisting moves toward greater openness in the ultraconservative kingdom.
Late on Thursday, Saudi state TV announced the naming of Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud as heir to the throne following the death of the second-in-line, Crown Prince Sultan, last week.
Crown Prince Nayef would succeed King Abdullah (87), who is recovering from his third operation to treat back problems in less than a year.
Video on Saudi TV showed the King sitting in an armchair, wearing a white headscarf and robe, with another cream-coloured robe draped over his shoulders. He did not speak.
Images broadcast earlier this week from the funeral of Prince Sultan showed the King with a surgical mask covering his face.
Prince Sultan died in New York on Saturday at the age of 80 after an unspecified illness.
Traditionally, the king chooses his heir. But Prince Nayef was chosen by Allegiance Council, a 37-member body composed of his brothers and cousins. King Abdullah created the council as part of his reforms and gave it the mandate to choose the heir.
Prince Nayef (78) was also named Vice Prime Minister and will keep his job as Interior Minister.
Prince Nayef has earned praise in the West for leading crackdowns on Islamist extremist cells in Saudi Arabia, which was home to 15 of 19 of the September 11 hijackers.
He was harshly criticised for a 2002 interview in which he said “Zionists”, a reference to Jews, benefited from the 9/11 attacks because it turned world opinion against Islam and Arabs.
He has also opposed some of King Abdullah's moves for more openness, saying in 2009 he saw no need for women to vote or participate in politics.
Even so, it seems unlikely that he would cancel King Abdullah's reforms if he became King. They include the opening of a co-ed university in 2009 where both genders can mix, though many religious authorities forbid any mixing of the sexes.
Some believe he would put any further changes on hold if he takes power.