Within hours of ascending the throne in Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud announced a decision that settles a long-standing question of succession and, according to analysts, opens the way for a new generation to lead the Kingdom and perhaps institute awaited reforms.
He named his nephew, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, to serve as deputy crown prince.
Prince Mohammed, born in 1959, is a comparative youngster in Saudi politics, but no newcomer to public service, analysts say. He was educated in the United States. After serving for more than a decade as assistant interior minister under his father, former Crown Prince Nayef, he was promoted to minister in 2012.
He is credited with effectively having cracked down on militants inside Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He is the victim of four failed assassination attempts.
Prince Mohammed has for years been responsible for counter-terrorism activities at the interior ministry and is the architect of an much-publicized program for “recovering” jihadists, where inmates undergo psychological counseling and “soft” rehabilitation—including swimming pools and saunas.
He also has worked closely with the United States and allies in fighting Islamic State militants.
“He will be seen internally as the ‘American’ candidate,’” said Karen Elliott House, author and expert on Saudi Arabia’s political affairs, “because he has worked so closely with the Americans—and also with every other Western government security apparatus that fights terrorism.”
The king-in-waiting, House said, has no sons.
“So this is less likely to arouse in the others [members of the royal family] a sense of a new dynasty being set up,” she said.
But, she added, that could change. The late King Abdullah, whose death at 90 was announced on Friday, had his last child at about the age of 80.
She says the naming of Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince ends the opportunity for in-fighting among the royals.
“The family has now spoken,” House said.
King Abdullah worked much of his reign to limit the influence of the so-called Sudairi, the seven sons of the Kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud by his wife, Hassa, said to have been a slave from Yemen.
“The interesting thing is that the Sudairis seem to be pretty strong again,” House said. “Here you have King Salman, a Sudairi. He made his son defense minister and he made his full-brother’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, deputy crown-prince-in waiting.”
Crown Prince Muqrin is the youngest-surviving son of ibn Saud, but is not a Sudairi. Though he is technically next-in-line for the throne, he is, says House, “the odd man out.”
“Some in the royal family say he is the son of a concubine and cannot be king,” House said.
And that means that Mohammed bin Nayef, not Muqrin, could succeed Salman.
“I think he has a reputation for being relatively quiet,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
“He does not seek media attention and he is almost universally respected among the Americans who work for him,” Cordesman Like most of this coming generation of Saudi princes, this is someone who has the education and background to move the country forward.”
Still, inside the kingdom on Friday, the death of King Abdullah was foremost.
“We are all very sad about King Abdullah’s death,” said Princess Basmah Bint Saud ibn Abdulaziz, daughter of former King Saud, adding that she is grateful his long suffering is over.
“It truly has ended all the debate that we’ve been having for years, and that is a relief for everybody,” she said. “And it’s also a sign of the passing over of the elders to the third generation.”
“He is a one-wife man, as far as I know,” said Bashmah, who has been an outspoken voice for gender reform in the Kingdom.
“He’s one of the new generation that does believe in modern thinking in an Islamic tradition and is very proud of his daughters.”