RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah named his son to head a new National Guard ministry on Monday, strengthening the force's role in the kingdom as the ruling family grapples with the transfer of power towards a younger generation.
The elevation of Prince Miteb, which state media said came in a royal decree, has few strategic or military implications but bolsters his credentials within the ruling family.
"With this ministry, Miteb will have a stronger role to play. It gives the national guard more authority, better structure and a larger institutional budget," said Abdulaziz al-Sager, head of the Gulf Research Centre in Jeddah.
The new ministry will be formed from the existing Presidency of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, based in Riyadh. Beside its military duties, the guard runs large social welfare and health programs for families of guardsmen.
Saudi Arabia has appointed leading younger members of the ruling family to senior posts over the past 18 months, including the interior ministry and governorships of Riyadh and Eastern Province, two of the most important districts.
King Abdullah turns 90 this year, Crown Prince Salman will be 77. The next generation of Saudi leaders, including Prince Miteb, are mostly in their 50s and 60s.
In a country where top posts are often held for decades, the moves represent a changing of the guard for the inner circles of a family where major decisions are based on a consensus of views among senior princes.
Unlike in European monarchies, the Saudi succession does not move from father to eldest son, but has instead passed down a line of brothers born to the kingdom's founder, King Abdulaziz, that include both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman.
However, that line is nearly exhausted and the ruling al-Saud must soon work out which of King Abdulaziz's grandsons is best placed to one day become the monarch.
Miteb's promotion also augments the special status of the national guard, commanded by King Abdullah from 1962-2010, as separate from the kingdom's conventional armed forces, run by Defence Minister Crown Prince Salman.
Originally based on the tribal fighters who helped King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud create the modern Saudi state in the early 20th century, the national guard later helped guard against possible coups d'etat by the regular army.
Although such coups are no longer seen as a risk the force has retained an important role in both the Saudi military and as a link to the country's main tribes.
According to a 2011 IHS Jane's Sentinel Country Risk Assessments estimate, the national guard has 100,000 personnel, compared to 75,000 for the regular army, 34,000 for the air force and 15,500 for the navy.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Jon Boyle)