Sultan bin Abdel Aziz of Saudi Arabia Dies
Caspar Weinberger, then the American defense secretary, with Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz in 1983.
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
Published: October 22, 2011
CAIRO — Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz, the heir apparent to the Saudi throne and one of the kingdom’s most powerful princes until illness sapped his strength in recent years, has died.
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Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, the interior minister, is expected to be named heir apparent.
The Royal Court announced the death on Saturday morning, saying the prince had died abroad. State television immediately switched to broadcasting Koranic verses.
Prince Sultan, who was the minister of defense and aviation, has reportedly been battling colon cancer since 2004. He has spent periods of up to a year outside the kingdom for treatment since 2008. An American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks described him in 2009 as “to all intents and purposes incapacitated.”
He had been admitted to New York-Presbyterian Hospital over the summer, where in recent weeks he had been slipping in and out of a coma, according to several sources, not wanting to speak publicly about the royal family. An American official confirmed that he died at the hospital.
Prince Sultan, at least 80 and by some accounts 85, was a member of the Sudeiri seven, seven full brothers by the favorite wife of King Abdel Aziz, who founded the kingdom in 1932. They have formed a kind of sub-tribe within the ruling Al-Saud clan and often worked to block or stall King Abdullah’s reform measures. Prince Nayef, the interior minister and also a Sudeiri, is expected to be named heir apparent.
King Abdullah, who is recuperating from back surgery this month, had formed a new family council to deal with succession questions, particularly when the throne might pass to a new generation. This would be the first time the 35-member council would endorse the inheritance, rather than just the king.
Given the power of Prince Nayef, the nation’s top law enforcement officer since 1975, he is expected to be confirmed, a move also signaled by his appointment as second deputy prime minister in 2009.
The Saudi monarchy, which has sought to counter the revolutions shaking its neighbors, wants to be seen as stable while much of the Arab world is in political turmoil. Attempts to organize antigovernment demonstrations in the kingdom have largely fizzled, while those that did emerge among the Shiite minority in the Eastern Province were put down forcefully.
“We will not see dramatic changes in the next two or three monarchs,” said Joseph Kechichian, the author of a book on succession in the kingdom. “The change will come when a new generation comes in.”
Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Washington from 1983 to 2005, is a son of Prince Sultan, as is Prince Khaled, the deputy minister of defense. Given the longevity of Saudi princes, several have turned their government ministries into personal fiefs, with their sons as their top aides.
Prince Sultan’s death will be the first important test of whether such a crucial ministry can be inherited.
In addition, since many of his regional portfolios were held in limbo in his absence, analysts are looking for whether the country will take a more forceful role in crises like Yemen now that he is dead. “Although the late Crown Prince hasn’t been directly involved in relations with Yemen in the past few months, relations with Yemen will have to officially be moved to another senior member of the family,” said Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, a Gulf-based analyst.
Prince Sultan, appointed defense minister and head of civil aviation in 1963 after serving in lesser cabinet posts, was long one of the four or five key princes who made most of the major decisions in the highly opaque monarchy.
He became the crown prince in 2005 when Prince Abdullah took the throne, after failing to persuade his brothers to skip Prince Abdullah and make him king.
During his time as defense minister he spent hundreds of billions of dollars on modern weapons systems and built a string of vast military cities that ring the interior of kingdom, including one named after himself in Kharj, outside Riyadh.
It was used by the United States Air Force to police the no-fly zone over Iraq for years after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The extended presence of American troops on Saudi soil became a source of contention in the kingdom, with Al Qaeda citing it as one of their reasons for trying to overthrow the government with a terrorist campaign in 2003.
But Prince Sultan remained one of the staunchest supporters of the kingdom’s close alliance with the United States. He supported King Fahd in the decision to allow 500,000 American troops into Saudi Arabia to free Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s invasion.
By all accounts Prince Sultan became extremely rich personally during his tenure, and was long accused of skimming healthy commissions off the kingdom’s massive weapons purchases. His son, Prince Bandar, dismissed those accusations in 2001, saying with up to $400 billion spent on development, maybe $50 billion was taken in corruption. “But we are not as bad as you think,” Prince Bandar told the PBS program Frontline.
But he was also known for his wide charitable donations, including building houses for the poor and a humanitarian city near Riyadh for rehabilitation and other treatment for the elderly.
Prince Sultan, like most of the roughly 35 sons of the founding monarch, was given a rudimentary palace education focused on religion and Arabic. He remained a traditional man throughout his life, marrying six or seven times and fathering at least 32 children, Mr. Kechichian said.
“He had an open house,” said Prince Abdullah bin Faisal al-Turki, one of his nephews, “and he always returned phone calls.”
He remembers his uncle sticking to custom — since Prince Abdullah’s mother was an older sister, whenever Prince Sultan saw her he would kiss her on the forehead in a sign of respect. His compounds always included multiple guest houses because he liked to gather relatives wherever he went.
“We remember him always smiling,” Prince Abdullah said.
Elizabeth A. Harris contributed reporting from New York.