Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

The death of Saudi Arabia's crown prince was hardly unexpected, but it forces the issue of the kingdom's political succession into the spotlight. 

The former Crown Prince and Minister of Defense, Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud, was at least 83, and had spent much of the past two years in the US having treatment for cancer. His successor has not yet been named.

It is generally presumed that the next crown prince will be the long-serving Interior Minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud, a half-brother of the current ruler, King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud. Prince Nayef has been at the helm of the interior ministry for forty-one years – nearly as long as Colonel Gaddafi ruled Libya and significantly longer than Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt. He is one of the most senior and most influential Saudi princes, and has built up a significant power base and patronage network in his four decades at the interior ministry, which is a major employer. One sign of his rising political power came earlier this year, when King Abdullah announced that thousands more people would be recruited to the security forces as part of a fiscal stimulus package.

Seniority has traditionally been a plus in Saudi Arabia's conservative political system, but the changing dynamics of the region mean there are very few men of Prince Nayef's generation who are still in power, with the notable exceptions of Sultan Qaboos of Oman, and the prime minister of Bahrain. There remain serious questions about how Saudi Arabia will eventually manage the transition to empowering the next generation of princes. If Prince Nayef is formally named the successor to the throne, King Abdullah may also wish to balance his appointment by bringing in some younger faces in to key diplomatic positions or deputy-minister roles. It is not yet clear if Prince Sultan's son, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, who worked closely with him at the defence ministry, will succeed his father as minister, but if he does, other senior princes are likely to jostle for promotions for their own sons.

Prince Nayef is seen as a leading conservative. The country's religious police answer to him. He has said in the past that women do not need to vote, though King Abdullah said in September that they would be able to vote in the next municipal elections, scheduled for 2015. Most recently, his ministry has been arguing that unrest among the Shia population in the Eastern province is being fomented by a foreign power – usually code for Iran – and he is believed to have been a key influence on the decision to send Saudi troops (under the GCC collective security pact) to Bahrain earlier this year. A number of reformist groups, including liberals, women's rights campaigners and Shia activists will be hoping that King Abdullah continues to enjoy a long life.

The Allegiance Council explained

Prince Nayef's succession is not yet guaranteed. The king has the right to choose the crown prince from the surviving descendants of his father, King Abdel-Aziz Al Saud, the kingdom's founder. However, King Abdullah is likely to consult with other senior princes, to ensure that the family does not become divided over the succession issue. He may wish to bring in a new institution that he established in 2006 to advise on the succession. This body, the Allegiance Council, is made up of the sons of King Abdel-Aziz (though any son who has passed away or is incapacitated can be represented by one of his own sons).  

The Council has two important powers. The first is to advise the king on his choice of crown prince. The onus is on the king to nominate up to three candidates, but the council technically has the right to propose alternative candidates and put them to an internal vote – an unusual example of intra-family democracy in a country without democratic state institutions. 

The second important power given to the council is that, by law, it can remove a future king if independent medics judge that that king is too ill to rule. When King Abdullah was crown prince, he was de facto regent of the country for some years while his predecessor King Fahd was ill. He no doubt wished to prevent such a scenario recurring in future, given that several octogenarian and septuagenarian sons of King Abdel-Aziz could still potentially be contenders to the throne. 

Technically he is not obliged to consult the council on his decision, as the law establishing the council said its mechanisms could not be applied to the existing king and crown prince – which also means the council would not have legal powers to remove King Abdullah if he became incapacitated. However, given that King Abdullah chose to set up this new institution, it would seem a good opportunity to ensure it is actually used.