- Associated Press - Sunday, June 17, 2012

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The aged king of Saudi Arabia led a burial ceremony Sunday for his brother, Crown Prince Nayef Abdul-Aziz, in the holy city of Mecca before his interment after evening prayers. He was the second heir to the throne to die outside the country in less than a year.

The 88-year-old King Abdullah gathered with royal family members and international envoys for the service. Prince Nayef’s wrapped body was carried through crowds of relatives in a ceremony broadcast live on several television channels.

King Abdullah has now outlived two appointed successors from among the elderly group of sons of Saudi’s founding monarch, King Abdul-Aziz.

Health issues increasingly preoccupy the ruling inner circle in Saudi Arabia and show the vivid contrast between a leadership born at the dawn of Saudi’s oil-rich age and the current population heavily weighted toward youth - with more than half under 25 years old.

Saudi authorities have led the efforts in the Western-allied Persian Gulf to counter Arab Spring-inspired calls for reforms, using a combination of crackdowns, intimidation and lavish spending to offer state jobs and handouts.

Gulf officials have proposed closer cooperation on security matters, including monitoring social media.

The 78-year-old Prince Nayef, the country’s interior minister, was considered wary of even the modest changes brought by King Abdullah, including pledges to allow women to vote and run in the next municipal elections in 2015.

Female activists had planned Sunday to mark the anniversary of a campaign to challenge the ultraconservative kingdom’s ban on female driving, but they postponed the protests because of the official mourning period for Prince Nayef.

The leading figure as the next heir to the throne, Defense Minister Prince Salman, 76, also is not viewed as a dynamic reformer willing to confront the behind-the-scenes power center in Saudi Arabia - the Islamic religious establishment that gives the monarchy its legitimacy to rule.

Later this week, a special council of royal family members is expected to convene to select the next crown prince of OPEC’s top oil producer. The wider succession shake-up also will be closely watched.

It opens the possibility that a member of the so-called “third generation” - the thousands of younger descendants of King Abdul-Aziz - could move into positions traditionally considered in line for the throne.

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