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The heir to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, died in a New York hospital early Saturday, officials said, raising succession questions in the key oil-producing country at a time of regional turmoil.

Sultan, the half-brother of King Abdullah, was thought to be in his 80s. He had been ill for some time — various reports indicated that he was battling cancer — and was receiving treatment in New York.

Saudi television broke into normal programming early Saturday to announce the death. It broadcast Quranic verses and footage of pilgrims in the holy city of Mecca.

Sultan’s body will be flown back to Saudi Arabia and a burial is scheduled for Tuesday.

He had served for decades as the Saudi defense minister. President Barack Obama called him a “valued friend” of the United States.

“He was a strong supporter of the deep and enduring partnership between our two countries,” Obama said. “On behalf of the American people, I extend my deepest condolences to King Abdullah, the royal family, and the people of Saudi Arabia.

Robert Jordan, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, called Sultan a “staunch ally.”

“His passing marks the end of a significant era in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “The steps taken to select a new Crown Prince will be scrutinized by the world and will provide insight into King Abdullah’s vision for future leadership of the Kingdom.”

Ascension to the Saudi throne does not pass from father to son. Rather, it’s a complex process and decisions are always cloaked in secrecy in the conservative kingdom.

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