The crown prince’s body arrived in Jeddah yesterday a day after his death, where it was met at King Khaled Airport by a host of Saudi princes.
Among them was the most likely candidate to take the position to succeed the king is Prince Salman, 76, another son of Saudi Arabia’s founder Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud.
The new crown prince will become heir to a king who is aged 89 at a time when Saudi Arabia faces a variety of challenges at home and abroad.
Although the interior ministry, which the late Nayef headed for 37 years, crushed al-Qaida inside Saudi Arabia, its Yemeni wing has sworn to topple the ruling al-Saud family and has plotted attacks against the kingdom.
Saudi rulers are also grappling with unrest in areas populated by the Shi’ite Muslim minority and with entrenched youth unemployment.
The kingdom is also locked in a region-wide rivalry with Shi’ite Iran — the party at the airport included former Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri, representing the Sunni Muslim political alliance that Saudi Arabia cultivates against Iran.
Salman, who is seen as a pragmatist with a strong grasp of the intricate balance of competing princely and clerical interests that dominate Saudi politics, was named defence minister last year.
The appointment of a new crown prince is not likely to change the kingdom’s foreign or domestic policy but might influence the course of cautious social and economic reforms started by King Abdullah.
Although most analysts believe it is highly likely Salman will be chosen, the ultimate decision may rest with a family Allegiance Council called to approve King Abdullah’s decision.