Riyadh: For the second time in less than a year, Saudi Arabia was thrown into the process of naming a new heir to the country`s 88-year-old King following the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz on Saturday.
That forces a potentially pivotal decision: Whether to bring a younger generation a step closer to ruling one of the West`s most critical Middle East allies. King Abdullah has now outlived two designated successors, despite ailments of his own.
It`s widely expected that the current succession order will stand and Nayef`s brother, Defence Minister Prince Salman -- another elderly and ailing son of the country`s founding monarch -- will become the No 2 to the throne of OPEC`s top producer.
But Prince Nayef`s death opens the possibility that a member of the so-called "third generation" of the royal clan -- younger and mostly Western educated -- will now move into one of the traditional ruler-in-waiting roles as the country looks ahead to challenges such as the nuclear path of rival Iran and Arab Spring-inspired calls for political and social reforms around the Gulf.
"Saudi Arabia will have to decide if this is the time to set the next generation on the path to rule," said Simon Henderson, a Saudi affairs expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
First, however, the Saudi leadership must fall behind the successor for Nayef, the hard-line interior minister who spearheaded Saudi Arabia`s fierce crackdown crushing al Qaeda`s branch in the country after the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
Nayef, who Al-Arabiya reported died in Geneva, was named crown prince in November after his brother Prince Sultan died.
The Allegiance Council, an assembly of sons and grandsons of the first Saudi monarch, King Abdul-Aziz, will choose the next crown prince.
The likely choice is the 76-year-old Salman, who previously served for more than four decades in the influential post of governor of Riyadh, the capital, as it grew from a desert crossroads to the centre of political power for the Western-allied Gulf states.
His links to Saudi religious charities brought Salman into controversy as one of the defendants in a lawsuit by insurance companies that accused Saudi Arabia of funnelling money to al Qaeda. A US appeals court in New York had ruled in 2008 that the Saudi royal family and other defendants enjoy immunity from such lawsuits.