DUBAI - Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah was expected to name Interior Minister Prince Nayef as his heir after a mourning period for Crown Prince Sultan ends on Thursday, formalizing a smooth succession in the world's biggest oil-producer.
Nayef has already run the kingdom on a daily basis for extended periods in recent years, during absences of both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan, who died on Saturday.
Given the king's age and health problems, the new crown prince is likely to assume an even more active role immediately.
An Allegiance Council of the ruling family, set up by the king in 2006, is expected to approve a new crown prince after mourning for Sultan ends on Thursday. It can step in if anything befalls the ruler before an heir is named.
"There is an institutionalized mechanism in place," said Hossein Shobokshi, a Saudi columnist. "The Crown Prince had been deteriorating for some time so they haven't been caught by surprise. It should be extremely orderly.
"We had been waiting for this development and things will be announced from a protocol point of view after the mourning period is over."
At stake is the stability of a security ally of the United States which wields great influence over Sunni Muslims through its guardianship of Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.
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The kingdom stood opposed to the Arab Spring uprisings that caused instability in neighboring Yemen and Bahrain, fearing they might create openings for major regional rival Shi'ite Muslim Iran.
Abdullah accepted the condolences of visiting leaders from his seat at Tuesday's funeral, wearing a surgical mask barely a week after a back operation.
Among mourners who greeted him after a prayer recital was Iran's Foreign
Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. A US delegation led by Vice President Joe
Biden is expected in Riyadh on Thursday.
Nayef was later shown on television meeting the king of Jordan and top officials from the United Arab Emirates.
Nayef, born in 1933, is sometimes described by Saudi liberals as an
anti-reform conservative who is likely to take a cautious approach to
social and political change, while emphasizing national security in
He was quoted soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States
as doubting that any of his compatriots had been involved. It turned
out that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.
Some diplomats and analysts say the man who has served as interior
minister since 1975 may show a more pragmatic side as crown prince --
and eventually as king.
Some 60 percent of Saudis are under the age of 30 and, with Internet
penetration of 44 percent according to internetworldstats.com, are
increasingly outward looking.
King Abdullah's cautious reforms were opposed by conservative clerics
and have aimed at creating more private sector jobs, reducing the role
of religion in education and improving the prospects of Saudi women.Cabinet Shuffle to Come
King Abdullah, may also institute a wider cabinet reshuffle.
The position of second-deputy prime minister, held by Nayef since 2009,
is usually awarded to the prince who is considered third in line to the
Although the king does not have to name anyone to the role, and did not
appoint Nayef as second-deputy until four years after he became king, it
might be seen as an important fail-safe given Abdullah and Nayef's
Riyadh Governor Prince Salman, a younger full brother of Sultan and
Nayef, is widely seen as the most senior prince after Nayef and the most
likely to be given the role.
Salman is thought to have been born in around 1936 and is the father of
the country's tourism minister, Prince Sultan bin Salman, who in 1985
became the first Arab astronaut.
Former diplomats to Riyadh say he has a reputation as religious, and has
wide experience dealing with foreign governments due to the country's
many expatriate workers.
Sultan had been defense minister for five decades and analysts say
Salman may succeed his older brother as defense minister, although
another likely candidate is Sultan's son, Prince Khaled, who has been
deputy defense minister since 2001 and led Saudi forces during the 1991
Nayef may give up the interior ministry if he becomes crown prince and a
senior prince would need to take the role, given that the job involves
supervision of all provincial governors, who are themselves princes.
"It would be a protocol issue and better to maintain it with a senior prince," said Shobokshi.
Nayef's son Prince Mohammed has impressed Western observers as a deputy
interior minister with the efficiency of his war on Islamic militants in
the kingdom, but may be seen as lacking the requisite seniority.
That may suggest an increased role be given to his uncle, Prince Ahmed,
who is also a full brother of Sultan, Nayef and Salman and has also been
a deputy interior minister since 1975.
Ahmed went to university in California and was tasked with introducing
reforms in the Eastern Province to improve the situation of Saudi
Arabia's minority Shi'ite population after some of its members revolted
in 1979 over discrimination.
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