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Last updated: June 16, 2012 5:44 pm
Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia, has died in Geneva. He will be buried in the holy city of Mecca on Sunday.
The death of the ruling family’s most conservative senior figure comes as the world’s largest oil exporter grapples with domestic reform issues and sweeping change across the Middle East.
Prince Naif, interior minister for almost four decades and in his late 70s, was appointed crown prince in October last year when his brother Prince Sultan died.
A pragmatic conservative opposed to the more reform-minded approach of King Abdullah, Prince Naif had become increasingly influential in recent years.
King Abdullah, 87, is widely expected to appoint Prince Salman, defence minister and former governor of Riyadh, as the new crown prince.
Described by diplomats as diligent and well respected, the ruling establishment will hope that Prince Salman’s better health will allow a period of stability to emerge at the top of Saudi decision making.
Prince Salman, while not perceived as a liberal, may add vigour to the social reforms promoted by King Abdullah that have lost momentum since the Arab spring, say analysts.
Analysts say Prince Naif’s death could presage a shift in tone within the government, but warn that change will remain incremental in Saudi Arabia, where reform comes second to traditional values.
Saudi Arabia has avoided the widespread street protests impacting others in the region as government largesse and tight security allowed the country to emerge as a force for the status quo and stability.
“Prince Naif was more conservative and less eager to develop the economy by, for example, having women in the workforce,” says Jean-Francois Seznec, a professor at Georgetown University. “I think Prince Salman will continue the reform programme started by the king, which is healthy, the reaction will be positive.”
The second death of a crown prince within nine months remains an unsettling factor for succession among the ageing sons of the founder of Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam.
The appointment of a new heir will prompt another delicate shuffling of power among the top echelons of Saudi decision making at the same time as Riyadh takes a leading role in regional politics in the wake of the Arab revolts.
Saudi Arabia – alarmed at the speed with which its US ally abandoned Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to the revolutionary masses – has since upped its regional diplomacy, lately pushing for a tighter Arab union of Gulf states to ward off Iran.
Riyadh, an important power broker in troubled neighbour Yemen, is also vying to play a more important role in the conflict in Syria, where the UN has suspended peacekeeping efforts amid rising violence.
Saudi Arabia is also emerging as an important financial backer for Egypt, where a new president will be announced within days.
As interior minister, Prince Naif built a pervasive security apparatus that, under the aegis of his son, crushed an Islamic extremist insurgency that destabilised the kingdom a few years after Saudi nationals played a leading role in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US.
Domestic dissent in the wake of the Arab spring, spanning some calls for democracy and women activists agitating for more freedoms, has not been tolerated.
The security apparatus has been quick to crush the restive Shia of the country’s oil-rich eastern province, where protests have flared since their co-religionists in Bahrain led an uprising against the minority Sunni-led government in Manama.
The Saudi religious establishment, with whom Prince Naif had good relations, have also been bolstered as the ruling family sought to burnish its credentials within this conservative Islamic society, an important aspect of the Al Saud family’s grip on power.
The iron fist represented by Prince Naif has been also balanced by generous hand outs and promises of state investment as Saudi Arabia sought to blunt domestic dissent with the proceeds of high oil prices.
The region’s largest economy may be booming, but rising domestic energy consumption and the ballooning state budget means the kingdom is becoming increasingly dependent on high crude prices to balance the budget.
Policy makers are also failing to help create enough jobs for its burgeoning youth population, the most pressing problem among most regional governments.
Prince Naif played an important role in shaping Saudi’s policy towards the Bahraini uprising.
Saudi troops led an Arab Gulf military force on to the island in March 2011 to back a crackdown amid fears that the fall of Manama would have allowed Iranian influence to creep on to the doorstep of the Arabian peninsula.
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