Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, a special adviser to King Abdullah and Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, was appointed second deputy prime minister, potentially placing him second in line to the throne.
Muqrin, the king’s younger half-brother born in 1945, was educated in Britain and the U.S. His appointment by royal decree comes amid speculation over succession in the world’s largest oil exporter where the king, who will turn 90 next year, has had recent operations, including back surgery in November.
“There was a concern about uncertainty regarding succession and transition,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an associate fellow of the London-based Chatham House who studies Gulf monarchies. “This is an attempt to show the family has a way forward in this time of regional upheaval, because Muqrin could potentially be in the frame for another 15 years.”
Abdullah has sought to keep Saudi Arabia free from the unrest that swept through the Arab world in 2011, leading to civil war in Syria and protests in neighboring Bahrain. He’s also fighting high youth unemployment and threats from al-Qaeda.
Muqrin is a former air force officer who has served as governor of the regions of Hail and Medina, and has managed the kingdom relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Prince Muqrin has significant political experience and is reasonably socially liberal by all accounts, while being extremely firm on security,” Emad Mostaque, a strategist at Noah Capital Markets, said in an e-mailed note. “We see this appointment as a strong positive to the market.”
The benchmark gauge for the Arab world’s biggest bourse has advanced 3.6 percent this year. The Saudi stock exchange is closed today.
There is no formal line of succession in Saudi Arabia, where six kings have ruled since the kingdom’s formation in 1932. In 2007, Abdullah gave the Allegiance Council, an appointed commission of princes, more power to select a new ruler and crown prince.
The 1992 basic law stipulates the king must be a male descendant of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud. King Abdullah, who came to the throne in 2005, is his 13th son.
Abdullah named his defense minister and half-brother Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, born in 1935, crown prince in June 2012, making the traditionalist former governor of Riyadh next in line to become king.
The second deputy prime minister is usually next in line to become crown prince, pending approval by the Allegiance Council, though Muqrin’s appointment by royal decree suggests the council hasn’t been institutionalized yet, according to Ulrichsen.
Muqrin is “a bridge between his generation of leaders and the next,” Mostaque said. “Given Prince Muqrin is the youngest of his generation of princes, it also all but guarantees a move to the next generation after him, with these princes increasingly being given prominent roles leading ministries and provinces.”