Fayez Nureldine / AFP - Getty Images
A man in Jeddah reads a newspaper on Sunday with an article about Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz's death as the country prepared to bury the former heir to the throne.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- As Saudi Arabia prepared to bury its former crown prince in Mecca on Sunday, questions swirled about how the world's largest oil producer would pass the baton to a younger generation of leaders.
Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz's death on Saturday meant that for the second time in less than 12 months the important U.S. ally has to choose a successor to 88-year-old King Abdullah.
Unlike in European monarchies, the Saudi succession does not pass from father to eldest son, but has moved along a line of brothers born to Abdul-Aziz bin Saud. A previous crown prince, Sultan, died last October. The likely candidate is Prince Salman, 76.
"There will be a meeting where the next crown prince will be decided. If you take a historical perspective it has always been done in an orderly and organized manner. Prince Salman fits the profile in many ways," said Khaled Almaeena, editor in chief of the Saudi Gazette.
The appointment of a new crown prince is not likely to change the kingdom's position on foreign or domestic policy, but King Abdullah's new heir will face a range of major challenges when he one day becomes king.
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 defense minister last year.
Saudi prince Alwaleed's deal for Twitter is not a traditional investment, says Dan Primack, senior editor at Fortune Magazine.
Salman is the current defense minister and was governor of Riyadh, the country's capital, for more than four decades.
Analysts believe he shares many of Nayef's conservative views and is unlikely to challenge the religious establishment if made king. But he also has played more of a mediator role in Saudi politics while in charge of Riyadh.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will allow women to vote and run for public office at the next election cycle in 2015. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.
"There has been an impression that Nayef is more conservative because he was the guy dealing with threats and terrorism as interior minister and Salman was meeting with businessman and intellectuals as governor of Riyadh," said Sami al-Faraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies.
"The reality is there is very little difference. Both are conservative and won't rock the boat," he added. "Nayef was just a behind-the-scenes guy and Salman is more public. One was implicit; the other explicit."
But it is unclear whether Nayef's death will bring about the shift to put a younger member of the royal family in a traditional role as No. 3 in line for the throne. 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.
Grooming a next generation as potential rulers would mark an important shift in Saudi affairs by acknowledging that the country is moving toward a new era under the stewardship of a group raised with deeper Western connections and understandings.
"The house of Saud will need to think about what would happen in the event the king became unwell, and there is no way on earth you would hand the crown prince role to a grandson in 48 hours time. You have to find an older prince," said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in Qatar.
Whoever takes the helm in the coming years, Saudi Arabia will have to grapple with Tehran's regional ambitions as well as its nuclear program. Iran insists it does not seek nuclear weapons, but Saudi officials and their Western allies fear the country could develop an arsenal and significantly shift the balance of power in the region. One possible outcome could be a regional nuclear arms race with Saudi Arabia also seeking atomic weapons.
Saudi Arabia is also facing Arab Spring-inspired internal pressures for political reforms and greater openness. King Abdullah has pledged billions of dollars to create more state jobs and offer other government-backed programs to try to appease calls for change.
Neighboring Bahrain, meanwhile, has become a central issue for Saudi Arabia since a Shiite-led uprising last year against the ruling Sunni monarchy. Saudi forces led a Gulf military intervention to help prop up the dynasty in the strategic island nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. Saudi Arabia is now leading efforts for closer union with the country that would effectively unify key policies such as security and foreign relations. More than 50 people have died in Bahrain's unrest since February 2011.
Reuters, The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.
More world news from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- Greeks go to the polls in vote that could shake world
- Cairo dispute triggers gunfight as Egypt votes
- 14 missing off Indonesia after 10-foot wave hits boat
- 'Powerful conservative force': Saudi Arabia's next in line to throne dies
- Guard in fatal armored-car heist caught at US border
- Toronto stage collapse kills 1 before scheduled Radiohead concert
- China's space mission a test of docking precision
Follow us on Twitter: @msnbc_world