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August 1, 2005

Lebanonwire

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Ageing Saudi leadership keeps succession question alive
by Ali Khalil

DUBAI - Saudi Arabia moved swiftly Monday to ensure a smooth transfer of power after King Fahd's death but the future is complicated by the advancing age of the next successors and signs of a dispute in the royal family.

Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, the de facto ruler of the oil powerhouse since his half-brother suffered a stroke in 1995, was anointed king by the family but is only two years younger than Fahd, who died aged 84.

In a bid to reassure jittery oil markets, Abdullah announced that all cabinet ministers would remain in place and officials said there would be no change to oil policies.

But Princess Sarah bint Talal, a niece of the late king Fahd, said: "We the Saudi people want a clearer mechanism for succession.

"All (members of the royal family) agreed on Crown Prince Abdullah given that he is the eldest and best qualified. Prince Sultan was also agreed upon to become crown prince. But what happens next?" the daughter of outspoken Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz told AFP.

Powerful Defence Minister Sultan bin Abdul Aziz was chosen to replace Abdullah as crown prince and as deputy prime minister of the ultra-conservative Gulf kingdom.

But the new king is already in his 80s and the new crown prince is believed to be 77 years old -- which cast doubts on the question of future succession.

The post of second deputy prime minister -- occupied since its creation in 1982 by Prince Sultan in acknowledgement of his position as second in line to the throne back then -- has been left vacant.

The move apparently came after internal disputes over the appointment of another brother to fill the third post in line.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz and the governor of Riyadh Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz are the most prominant aspirants to fill the post.

But age difference favours four other princes who are older than Nayef and Salman, including Prince Talal, whose outspoken views on democracy have clashed with those of other members of the conservative royal family.

The three others are princes Mishaal, Mutaeb and Bandar.

Princess Sarah, who runs a local charity, insisted however that her father should not be ignored in any discussion concerning the line to throne.

"We must not overlook that my father has a right (to the throne) like all the other brothers. They have to put my father within the circle of decision making," she said.

"My father is a son of Abdul Aziz (the monarch who founded the Saudi kingdom in 1932). In my opinion and in many others, he is one of the best qualified to play a leading role in the future."

The maverick prince Talal openly criticises radical Islamists in the oil-rich kingdom, saying last year: "Saudi Arabia is not a theocracy despite applying Islamic law."

But Prince Talal, who served in the past as a finance minister, has been largely marginalised by stronger figures within the royal family and currently does not hold any official position.

Prince Nayef, on the other hand, controls internal security in the vast desert kingdom, and leads the fight against the Al-Qaeda network which has been behind a wave of attacks in Saudi Arabia since May 2003.

Prince Salman draws strength from his position as the long-standing governor of the capital Riyadh.

Both Nayef and Salman are full brothers of the new Crown Prince Sultan, and either may benefit from his support to step into the vacant post of second deputy prime minister.

But Princess Sarah insisted that "naming a younger brother (when an older one was still alive) is impossible, and if it happened it would not be a good sign."

"There are well known traditions in the family, which dictate that the eldest and the best qualified should be next in line," she said.

A basic law adopted in 1992 opened the way to a possible power struggle in Saudi Arabia by removing the automatic nature of the succession.

It ruled that a new king would be chosen by the Saud family as the "most capable" of the sons or grandsons of founder King Abdul Aziz.

In theory, the law allowed the royal family to select a grandson of Abdul Aziz over the 20-odd surviving brothers and half-brothers of King Fahd.

However, sources close to the royal family previously said the princes had all agreed that the sons of Abdul Aziz should continue to succeed in order of age, ahead of the grandsons.

The royal family today comprises up to an estimated 25,000 members, of whom around 200 are princes wielding influence.

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