Hassan Ammar / AP
Saudi crown prince and interior minister Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud drinks coffee and welcomes Gulf Arab leaders taking part in the Gulf Cooperation Council summit on May 14.
Updated at 8:10 a.m. ET: RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the hardline interior minister who spearheaded Saudi Arabia's fierce crackdown crushing al-Qaida's branch in the country after the 9/11 attacks in the United States and then rose to become next in line to the throne, has died. He was in his late 70s.
Nayef, interior minister since 1970, was the heir to Saudi King Abdullah and was appointed crown prince in October after the death of his elder brother and predecessor in the role, Crown Prince Sultan.
He had been in Switzerland since May for medical tests. No details were released about his illness.
Nayef had a reputation as a steely conservative who opposed King Abdullah's reforms and developed a formidable security infrastructure that crushed al-Qaida but also locked up some political activists.
Jane Kinninmont, London-based Chatham House's senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program, told msnbc.com that a pillar of the old authoritarian order in the Middle East would had gone with Nayef's death, adding:
"Prince Nayef was the most powerful conservative force in Saudi Arabia, running the interior ministry, the internal security forces and the religious police. He was opposed to women voting or driving. The next in line to the throne, Prince Salman, is seen as a more liberal figure, and is a bit younger, but it's all relative -- he's in his 60s rather than late 70s. Don't expect any radical change coming from the new crown prince -- more a subtle shift of tone."
The big question is who will be the third in line to the throne -- do they keep passing this role around the increasingly elderly sons of the first Saudi king, or choose someone from the younger generation? The family is huge and full of rivalries and they are likely to be increasingly preoccupied with their internal family politics -- which could prove a distraction from the need to reform and adapt to accommodate their own population's needs.
Funeral prayers for the prince would be held after sunset on Sunday, the royal court said in a statement. Burial traditionally follows immediately after prayers.
Al Arabiya television reported that the prayers would be held in a mosque in the holy city of Mecca.
Nayef's death means the 89-year-old King Abdullah must nominate a new heir for the second time in nine months. Defense Minister Prince Salman, 76, seen as most likely to continue King Abdullah's cautious reforms, has long been viewed as the next most senior prince in the kingdom's succession.
Nayef, King Abdullah and Salman are among the nearly 40 sons of Saudi Arabia's founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, who established the kingdom in 1935.
Salman was made defense minister in November and had served as Riyadh governor for five decades.
The New York Times called the prince "hard-line but pragmatic" in a profile that ran in October.
The article went on to quote an October 2009 American diplomatic cable that was obtained via WikiLeaks:
"Nayef is widely seen as a hard-line conservative who at best is lukewarm to King Abdullah’s reform initiatives ... However, it would be more accurate to describe him as a conservative pragmatist convinced that security and stability are imperative to preserve Al Saud rule and ensure prosperity for Saudi citizens."
Msnbc.com's F. Brinley Bruton and Reuters contributed to this report.
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