RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia appointed Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as Interior Minister on Monday, marking a significant move towards a new generation of leaders from the kingdom's ruling family.
Prince Mohammed, a son of the late veteran Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who died in June, is best known as Saudi Arabia's long-time security chief and has garnered the praise of Western countries for his role in the campaign against al Qaeda.
"This brings forward the promotion of the next generation to the succession," said Robert Lacey, author of "Inside the Kingdom". Prince Mohammed was born in 1959.
The appointment as Interior Minister lifts Prince Mohammed, who was already a deputy interior minister, into a critical role for the ruling al-Saud family and one that has until now only been held by the current ruling generation.
Despite his role in the security hierarchy, analysts say Prince Mohammed is in tune with King Abdullah's cautious social and economic reforms partly aimed at making Saudi society more open to outside influence.
He replaces his uncle, Prince Ahmed, who was only appointed as Interior Minister in June. "Prince Ahmed is relieved of his position as Interior Minister at his own request and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is appointed," said a royal decree carried on state media.
King Abdullah, the late Prince Nayef, Crown Prince Salman and Prince Ahmed are all sons of Saudi Arabia's founder King Abdulaziz who was known as Ibn Saud. Analysts said the departure of Prince Ahmed meant he was less likely to become king.
Unlike in European monarchies, the Saudi line of succession has so far passed along a line of brothers and is determined within the ruling family who weigh both the seniority and capability of leading candidates.
Beside Prince Mohammed, analysts have pointed to Mecca Governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal, Eastern Province Governor Prince Mohammed bin Fahd and Saudi Arabian National Guard chief Prince Miteb bin Abdullah as leading next-generation princes.
"This is an excellent appointment of someone who has been on the frontlines of the campaign against terrorism both within Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East," said Robert Jordan, the former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh from 2001 to 2003.
The Interior Ministry employs more than half a million Saudi Arabians and runs the police, civil defense, domestic intelligence, prisons, the border services and the kingdom's sophisticated security forces.
"Usually the one who comes next in the succession has to come from a senior job in the system. Now the Interior Ministry role is occupied by a grandson of Ibn Saud. That automatically puts him in a good position when that time comes," a Saudi analyst who asked to remain anonymous said.
A March 2009 U.S. embassy cable released by WikiLeaks described Prince Mohammed as already being the de facto Interior Minister and said he was "held in high regard by Saudi King Abdullah... and well respected by the Saudi populace".
Although Prince Mohammed's father, the late Prince Nayef, was seen as a staunch conservative with close ties to clerics of the kingdom's Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, his son has also built relations with more liberal Saudis.
"I would assume he's from the second generation of princes who are more receptive to ideas of reform. But he is good at making everybody think he is in their camp. That's what makes a successful politician," Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi said.
Best known inside Saudi Arabia for spearheading the campaign to crush an al Qaeda uprising from 2003-06, Prince Mohammed narrowly survived an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber sent by the militant group in 2009.
Embassy cables over several years revealed that Prince Mohammed worked very closely with U.S. security officials to mitigate the danger of an attack by al Qaeda or Iran against Saudi infrastructure.
"He is perceived as progressive, efficient and result-oriented," Saudi columnist Hossein Shobokshi said.
A main element of his strategy to rout al Qaeda from the kingdom was the introduction of "rehabilitation centers" where former militants discussed their views with traditionalist Wahhabi clerics and American-trained psychiatrists.
Although some graduates from the centers have since re-emerged in Yemen fighting with al Qaeda, Prince Mohammed himself described the true role of the centers as winning over Saudi public opinion.
"(Prince Mohammed) shared (with us)...that if the Saudi people saw that the government had offered these extremists a helping hand which they slapped away, instead of a clenched fist used against them, then their families, tribes and the Saudi nation as a whole would view the government as 'the benefactor' and these unrepentant extremists as 'deviants'," the U.S. embassy cable said.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Michael Roddy)