Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah named his defense minister and half brother as crown prince, making the traditionalist former governor of Riyadh next in line to lead the world’s largest oil supplier.
The appointment of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, born in 1935, was announced by Saudi state television. His predecessor Nayef bin Abdulaziz died on June 16 in Geneva after about eight months as heir to the throne. A day later, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Mecca in accordance with the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
“Salman is popular in the royal family,” Khalid al-Dakhil, a professor of political science at King Saud University, said in a phone interview from Riyadh. “He has been a public figure since the 1960s and is close to the traditional line, which is strong within the government and royal family.”
Salman becomes crown prince as Saudi Arabia confronts turmoil in the Middle East and high unemployment at home. Unscathed by the popular uprisings in the Arab world that led to the toppling of leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, King Abdullah spent an additional 224 billion riyals ($60 billion) last year to create jobs, build homes and increase salaries for members of the armed forces.
King Abdullah and the royal family have moved to ensure a smooth political transition after the death of Nayef this month and Prince Sultan in October. Sultan was both defense minister and crown prince. Abdullah appointed Prince Salman as defense minister on Nov. 5 after naming Nayef as crown prince on Oct. 28.
Also today, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz was named interior minister, a role Nayef had held, state television said. He had been deputy minister.
Salman served as governor of Riyadh from 1963 to 2011, according to the website of the Saudi Embassy in Washington. 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 turned a sleepy desert settlement into a metropolis, which as capitals around the world go stands up pretty well,” said Robert Lacey, a British author and historian who has written about the Saudi royal family.
In April, Salman traveled to Washington on his first official visit as minister, where he met with President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The meeting was part of continuing cooperation between the two countries on regional issues, the Saudi Embassy in Washington said on its website.
“Salman has a very good relationship with the U.S. and the U.S. military,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Since becoming defense minister, he has had a number of meetings with U.S. political and military officials to help keep the U.S.-Saudi military relationship healthy.”
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.
His son, Sultan bin Salman, flew into space as a payload specialist on the U.S. shuttle Discovery in 1985. His son Faisal is the chairman of the Riyadh-based Saudi Research and Marketing Group. The group owns the London-based pan-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and the Jeddah-based Arab News English language paper.
Since taking on the role as defense minister, Salman has raised his public profile by visiting soldiers around the country. This year, Saudi forces have also announced military exercises, including five-days of maneuvers in the Eastern Province in February. The same month, Saudi forces held training exercises with Oman in the sultanate.
The ministry said it has prepared a plan to “rebuild and modernize” its armed forces as the kingdom confronts regional risks, the Saudi Press Agency reported in November.
In December, about seven weeks after Salman was appointed defense minister, Saudi Arabia signed a contract with the U.S valued at $29.4 billion to sell Boeing Co. F-15 fighters to the Gulf nation. The agreement includes 84 new aircraft and the modernization of 70 existing aircraft.
“He had an instant impact on the defense ministry when he took over,” Lacey said.
In Taif, a city near Mecca, King Abdullah received princes, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, military officers and Islamic scholars offering their condolences for the death of Nayef, the official Saudi Press Agency said.
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.
Relations between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslim-led Iran remain tense. Saudi Arabia says Iran is seeking to foment unrest among the Shiite communities in the region, including Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia and other members sent troops to help put down an uprising last year. Iran denies interference and accuses Sunni Arab rulers of discriminating against Shiites.