Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud

CROWN Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who led Saudi Arabia's terrorism fight while serving as interior minister, has died. He was in his late 70s.

The death of the heir to King Abdullah was announced on Saturday by state television. Details of his death were not given. The Saudi royal family had started to gather in Mecca ahead of the funeral yesterday, the Saudi Press Agency said.

Prince Nayef had been Saudi Arabia's most powerful prince amid the turmoil that has rocked the region. He put down attacks by al-Qaeda and backed the religious police in the Sunni Muslim kingdom, the world's largest oil producer.

He was the second crown prince to die in less than a year, renewing questions about succession as the Saudi leadership ages. The king named him to succeed Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on October 28. Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, who was born in 1935, followed Crown Prince Sultan as defence minister.

"I don't think this will have any impact on the stability of the country," said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "The selection process is pretty clear. Prince Salman will most likely become the next crown prince."

Prince Nayef's death comes as Saudi Arabia confronts unemployment, an issue cited by some activists during the unrest that led to the toppling of leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya during the Arab Spring that began in December 2010. Joblessness reached 27% for Saudis between 20 and 30 years old in 2009, according to official data.

King Abdullah unveiled a $130bn spending plan in the first quarter of last year, including allowances for government workers and salary increases for military personnel.

Six kings have ruled Saudi Arabia since it was established in 1932. King Abdullah changed the kingdom's succession rules in 2007 to give an appointed commission of princes, the Allegiance Council, more power to select a new ruler.

Prince Nayef was one of the influential brothers known as the Sudairi Seven, the sons of the kingdom's founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud. King Abdullah's son Mutaib is head of the National Guard, a 110000-man Bedouin force loyal to the royal family, and another son, Abdul Aziz, is the deputy foreign minister. Prince Sultan's son Khaled is deputy defence minister, and Prince Nayef's son Mohammad is the deputy minister for security affairs.

"Succession is very complicated," said Mohammed al-Qahtani, a democracy advocate and economist. "They will think about stability. Salman will make a good candidate for crown prince."

Prince Nayef pledged in February last year to stand by the people and government of Bahrain against all that affects its security, stability and national unity as security forces confronted Shiite Muslim protesters, the Saudi Press Agency reported. About a month later, Saudi Arabia sent troops to the neighbouring Sunni country as part of a Gulf Co-operation Council force to help put down the Shiite protests.

"Nayef was known for his courage and dedication to the security of his country," said US ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Smith, adding that he "was a strong leader and a good friend to the US".

In September 2010, Prince Nayef, who had led the interior ministry since 1975, said Saudi Arabia was able to "crush" the ideology of terrorism. The ministry's forces had arrested 11527 people since September 11 2001 for alleged involvement in terrorism, according to a statement in April last year.