Saudi Arabia nears generational change in the throne

AP News
Posted: Jan 22, 2015 8:32 PM

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — With the death of King Abdullah, the throne of Saudi Arabia passed to another son of the country's founder as it has relatively smoothly for the past six decades. But it brings the oil-rich kingdom one step closer to a question that will test the unity of its royal family: Who in the next generation will reign?

Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, who united tribes and founded the kingdom that bears his name, had dozens of sons — possibly more than 50 — from multiple wives. Power has passed among them, from brother to brother, since his death in 1953.

Crown Prince Salman, Abdullah's half-brother, is now king.

But ranks of that generation, largely in their 70s and 80s, are thinning. Soon, the throne must go to the son of one those sons, potentially putting succession and power in the hands of one branch of the family at the expense of the others.

The health of Salman, 79, is uncertain. He suffered at least one stroke that has left him with limited movement on his left arm.

Some of the grandsons are clearly jockeying to be in the running, installed in prominent positions by their fathers in preparation.

Traditionally, the Al Saud unite to conceal any divisions over succession and protect the stability of their rule. But previous transitions have not had the all-or-nothing potential of the generational change.

Abdullah sought to ensure the transition goes without intra-family rivalries by formalizing the Allegiance Council, a body made up of the living sons of Abdul-Aziz and some of the prominent grandsons who vote to pick the king and crown prince.

That legacy could be tested sooner than expected.

Abdullah took the unusual step of setting a second-in-line to the throne: Prince Muqrin. Notably, Muqrin's nomination as deputy crown prince was approved by the Allegiance Council — the first time it voted on a succession issue, setting a precedent for its authority. He won with a three-quarters majority.

Muqrin was named crown prince in the same royal court statement that announced Salman as king. Muqrin, who once oversaw the kingdom's intelligence agency, is the youngest of Abdul-Aziz's sons. Still, he is 69.

In theory, Salman — now that he's king — could try down the line to push the Allegiance Council to name a new crown prince instead of Muqrin, but any such attempt could stir up too ugly a family dispute. Another possibility is that he will turn to the council to select a new deputy crown prince after Muqrin.

In any case, the question of the generational shift in succession will jump to the fore.

Two in the next generation are seen as front-runners. One is Miteb, the son of Abdullah, who holds the powerful post of commander of the National Guard, effectively the king's personal force. Abdullah, who had more than 30 children, seeded other sons into significant positions. One is governor of Riyadh, the kingdom's capital, while another is governor of Mecca, home to Islam's holiest shrine.

The other likely contender is Interior Minister Prince Mohammed, the son of Abdullah's half-brother Nayef. Nayef was a powerhouse in Saudi Arabia for years, holding the Interior Ministry post and leading security forces in the fight against Islamic militants. Nayef was elevated to crown prince under Abdullah but died in 2012. Mohammed later became interior minister himself.

Others may be possibilities. Prince Faisal, the son of Salman, is governor of Medina, one of Islam's holiest sites. Another son of Salman, Prince Mohammed, is believed to be the closest to his father and head of his royal court, though being only in his 30s could keep him out of the immediate running.

Another grandson, Prince Khaled bin Bandar, served as deputy defense minister briefly and was the first of his generation to be governor of Riyadh. He is now head of intelligence.

Prince Khaled bin Sultan, whose father was crown prince and defense minister until his death in 2011, also may be in the running. He served nearly a year and a half as deputy defense minister but was abruptly removed in 2013 in what many saw as a sign of Abdullah's disapproval.

There are hundreds of other princes in the generation of grandsons, but the vast majority are considered not experienced or aren't interested in the throne, often focused instead on business pursuits.