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Concerns about the wellbeing of the aging Saudi inner circle could encourage consideration of bringing a younger member of the royal network into the succession line, possibly as successor to Nayef as interior minister. Among the possible contenders mentioned include King Abdullah’s son Mitab, the head of the National Guard, and Nayef’s son Mohammad, a senior official in the interior ministry.

Nayef’s death will certainly be the biggest challenge the ruling clan faced in a few years as many are striving for the throne,” said Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington.

President Barack Obama said Nayef “dedicated himself to the security of Saudi Arabia as well as security throughout the region.”

” Under his leadership, the United States and Saudi Arabia developed a strong and effective partnership in the fight against terrorism, one that has saved countless American and Saudi lives,” the White House statement added.

Nayef had been out of the country since late May, when he went on a trip that was described as a “personal vacation” that would include medical tests. He traveled abroad frequently in recent years for tests, but authorities never reported on potential ailments.

The royal family, which closely guards information about the health of its members, confirmed the death but gave no details about the cause. It said a funeral would be held Sunday after prayers in Mecca.

Soon after becoming crown prince, Nayef vowed at a conference of clerics that Saudi Arabia would “never sway from and never compromise on” its adherence to the puritanical Wahhabi doctrine. The ideology, he proclaimed “is the source of the kingdom’s pride, success and progress.”

Nayef had expressed some reservations about some of the reforms by Abdullah, who made incremental steps to bring more democracy to the country and increase women’s rights. Nayef said he saw no need for elections in the kingdom or for women to sit on the Shura Council, an unelected advisory body to the king that is the closest thing to a parliament.

In 2009, Nayef promptly shut down a film festival in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, apparently because of conservatives’ worry about the possibility of gender mixing in theaters and a general distaste toward film as immoral.

But his top concern was security in the kingdom and maintaining a fierce bulwark against Shiite powerhouse Iran, according to U.S. Embassy assessments of Nayef.

“A firm authoritarian at heart,” was the description of Nayef in a 2009 Embassy report on him, leaked by the whistleblower site WikiLeaks.

Nayef, who was interior minister in charge of internal security forces since 1975, built up his power in the kingdom though his fierce crackdown against al-Qaida after the Sept. 11 attacks and a broader campaign to prevent the growth of Islamic militancy among Saudis.

The 9/11 attacks at first strained ties between the two allies. For months, the kingdom refused to acknowledge any of its citizens were involved in the suicide airline bombings. Nayef finally became the first Saudi official to publicly confirm that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, in a February 2002 interview with The Associated Press.

Nayef took a leading role in combatting the branch in Yemen as well. In 2009, al-Qaida militants tried to assassinate his son, Prince Muhammad, who is deputy interior minister and the commander of counterterrorism operations. A suicide bomber posing as a repentant militant blew himself up in the same room as the prince but failed to kill him.

Nayef’s Interior Ministry allied with clerics in a “rehabilitation” program for detained militants, who went through intensive courses with clerics in “correct” Islam to sway them away from violence. The program brought praise from the United States.

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