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Saudi Succession Question Reopens With Crown Prince’s Death

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. Source: AFP/Getty Images via Bloomberg

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, buried Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, raising the issue of succession in the kingdom for the second time in less than a year.

Nayef, who also served as interior minister for more than three decades, was interred yesterday in Mecca in an unmarked grave, as stipulated by the Sunni Wahhabi version of Islam. King Abdullah, who is in his late 80s, attended the ceremony.

Nayef’s death, the first time in modern Saudi history that a king has outlived two crown princes, leaves Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz as a leading contender for the crown prince position as the kingdom grapples with high youth unemployment, security issues including the threat of al-Qaeda militants and unprecedented political change in the Middle East.

“Salman is obviously the candidate,” said Robert Lacey, author of “Inside the Kingdom,” a 2009 history of Saudi Arabia. “People would say that he has been a king in waiting for 20 years.”

Salman, born in 1935, served as governor of Riyadh for almost five decades. In that time, the capital grew from a city of about 150,000 people to about 5 million people, according to data on the website of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He was appointed defense minister after Nayef, who was in his late 70s, was named crown prince in October.

‘Got Charisma’

Salman, like Nayef, is one of the influential brothers known as the Sudairi Seven, the sons of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud, and one of his wives, Hassa bint-Ahmed al-Sudairi.

Since taking on the role of defense minister, Salman has raised his public profile by visiting soldiers around the country.

“He has got charisma,” Lacey said. “He has got the presence of a king.”

Following Sultan’s death, Abdullah waited for the end of the three-day mourning period before appointing Nayef on Oct. 28 as heir to the throne. Salman followed Sultan as defense minister on Nov. 5.

Other senior royals include Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, Deputy Interior Minister Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, who serves as chief of the general intelligence directorate, and Khaled al-Faisal, the governor of the Mecca region. All four were born in the 1940s.

National Guard

King Abdullah’s son Mutaib, who heads the 110,000-man National Guard, and another son, Abdul Aziz, who serves as deputy foreign minister, are also senior members of the family. So is former Crown Prince Sultan’s son Khaled and Nayef’s son Mohammad, who serve as deputy ministers, and Mohammed bin Fahd, the governor of the Eastern Province

“Prince Nayef’s untimely demise brings the shift to the second generation closer,” Emad Mostaque, a U.K.-based analyst at Religare Capital Markets, said in an e-mailed note today. “This is positive for oil as there is no clear front runner from the next generation.”

Crispin Hawes, director for the Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group in London, said he doubts “that they have decided who is going to be the standard bearer from the next generation.”

“I don’t think they will feel the need to make that huge decision rapidly as it is one that they have essentially been delaying for ten years,” he said.

Oil Supply

Succession is unlikely to have a major impact on Saudi policies, said analysts including Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist at the Jeddah-based National Commercial Bank.

Saudi Arabia will make sure there is enough supply in the global crude market, Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said at last week’s OPEC meeting. Oil for July delivery advanced as much as $1.57 to $85.60, the highest intra-day price since June 11. It was at $84.62 at 2:49 p.m. Singapore time.

Saudi Arabia’s oil output increased 1.8 percent in April from the previous month to 10.1 million barrels a day, according to the Joint Organization Data Initiative.

The change 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 so-called Arab Spring that began in December 2010. Joblessness reached 27 percent for Saudis between 20 and 30 years old in 2009, according to official data.

Largely Unscathed

While Saudi Arabia has been largely unscathed by the Arab revolts, the kingdom sent troops into neighboring Bahrain in March last year to help crush a mainly Shiite-led uprising after accusing Iran of interfering in the affairs of the Persian Gulf country. Iran denies the allegation and accuses Sunni rulers in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia of discriminating against Shiites.

King Abdullah unveiled a $130 billion spending plan in the first quarter of 2011, including allowances for government workers and salary increases for military personnel.

Six kings have ruled since the formation of the kingdom in 1932. 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 and the new crown prince. The 1992 basic law stipulates that the king must be a son or grandson of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud.

“They need to activate the allegiance law to stabilize and normalize succession,” Khalid al-Dakhil, a professor of political science at King Saud University, said in a phone interview from Riyadh. “We need to know how the leader is going to be chosen. Start the precedent now with the allegiance council then the younger generation adheres to it.”

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