* Saudi royal family approaches new generation of rulers
* King Abdullah, 89, unseen since operation last Saturday
* Founder's hundreds of grandsons offer many successors
RIYADH, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Two royal deaths and two cabinet
reshuffles in just over a year have edged Saudi Arabia's ruling
family toward a tough decision: turning to a new generation
after 60 years of rule by sons of the founding patriarch.
The succession beyond King Abdullah - the fifth of Ibn
Saud's sons to reign and who is, at 89, recovering from major
surgery - is a sensitive subject among the al-Saud dynasty's
hundreds of princes; but it will determine the path of the
world's top oil exporter and main Arab ally of the United States
as it navigates domestic change and regional turmoil.
"In the next 10 years, there will be great changes in terms
of the royal family," said Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of
the local English-language newspaper the Saudi Gazette.
"The younger generation will play a role."
Abdullah, not seen in public since an 11-hour back operation
last Saturday, has pursued cautious economic and social reforms
aimed at reconciling an ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom with
the demands of a modern economy and youthful population.
Doctors have said his surgery in Riyadh was successful.
The immediate line of succession is to the crown prince,
Prince Salman, born in 1936 and another son of the kingdom's
founding monarch, King Abdulaziz, known as Ibn Saud, who died in
1953. But beyond Salman, there is much less clarity.
In October last year, there had appeared still to be a
formidable line-up of half-brothers standing beside King
Abdullah as heirs to the conservative Islamic state founded by
their father in 1932 after decades of tribal warfare.
Yet 13 months later, the deaths of princes Sultan and Nayef,
both of whom had been in turn the designated successor as crown
prince, as well as the departures of princes Ahmed and Muqrin
from senior posts, have left no obvious heir-apparent after
Crown Prince Salman, who was promoted after Nayef died in June.
There is debate as to whether Prince Ahmed might remain the
principal contender, but some Saudi analysts and foreign
diplomats now think it a possibility that after the death of
Abdullah the next crown prince will be a grandson of Ibn Saud.
"I think there is no other alternative to the next crown
prince being a grandson of King Abdulaziz," said Saudi political
scientist Khalid al-Dakhil.
In a system built on the idea that consensus ensures
stability, and which prizes both seniority and competence, the
sprawling al-Saud clan will have to weigh the balance between
the family's many different branches.
Saudi analysts see the al-Saud as adept at managing the
succession process, something a former Western ambassador to
Riyadh said they would be especially anxious to do now at a time
of democratic ferment, which has felled republican Arab
autocrats and pressured some neighbouring monarchs.
"You can bet with the Arab Spring in the background they'll
want to take a decision they can all live with and support," he
said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, the generational leap may prove fraught because Ibn
Saud's grandsons - of whom there are hundreds - may fear that if
they or their brothers are passed over in favour of cousins, the
line of succession will set off down a different branch of the
growing family tree, excluding them and their offspring forever.
"It's very difficult to make the jump to the next
generation," said Madawi al-Rasheed, a London-based critic of
the al-Saud and author of "A History of Saudi Arabia".
"But if there are enough government positions to go around,
they can keep them all happy," Rasheed added.
The family might still chose to postpone the generational
shift by elevating to the position of official successor Prince
Ahmed, who resigned abruptly in November as interior minister
after less than five months in the position.
"It doesn't rule Prince Ahmed out of the equation. He's
still there," said a Saudi analyst who spoke anonymously. "He's
still a choice to become crown prince when Salman becomes king."
Another of Ibn Saud's sons, Prince Muqrin, lost his job as
intelligence chief in July and seems less favoured, as do other
surviving sons of Ibn Saud's several wives and concubines.
Unlike typical European monarchies, there is no automatic
succession from father to eldest son. Instead the kingdom's
tribal traditions dictate that a new king and senior family
members select the heir they consider fittest to lead. The
practice of polygamy means they can have a wide choice of sons.
For all the difficulties, little is likely to be heard in
public. Any dissent among princes over the succession would only
happen in private, said Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi.
There may be arguments behind closed doors. But, Khashoggi
said: "Then it would be 'Long live the King!' and 'Long live the
King Abdullah set up a family "Allegiance Commission" in
2006 which ensures representation for different branches of Ibn
Saud's descendants and must approve or reject a new king's
choice of heir, if necessary selecting its own candidate.
The commission only comes into effect after Abdullah's
death, but analysts said it in some ways only formalised an
existing process of seeking consensus on naming a crown prince.
Even if the al-Saud do elect to move down a generation at
the next opportunity there is no guarantee that if Salman's heir
were to be one of his nephews, he would be a much younger man.
Mecca Governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal, one of the leading
candidates among the next-generation princes and viewed as a
comparative liberal, was born in 1941, making him older than
either of his uncles Prince Ahmed or Prince Muqrin.
The grandson with the biggest job, however, is Prince
Mohammed bin Nayef, who replaced Ahmed as interior minister this
month. The post not only brings control of the
kingdom's formidable security apparatus but formal command over
the regional governors, who are all themselves royal princes.
Prince Mohammed was Saudi security chief before becoming
minister and earned the plaudits of foreign diplomats and King
Abdullah for crushing a domestic al Qaeda wing in recent years.
He is seen by local analysts as an astute politician.
At 59, he is roughly a contemporary of his cousins Prince
Mohammed bin Fahd, governor of Eastern Province, and Saudi
Arabian National Guard commander Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, both
also seen as possible future kings.
Other prominent grandsons include Deputy Defence Minister
Prince Khaled bin Sultan and Tourism Minister Prince Sultan bin
Salman, son of the crown prince and the first Arab in space.
As the ruling dynasty prepares to enter uncharted territory
in the years to come, Saudi Arabia's 28 million people will be
following closely the health of their rulers and any further
shuffling in the responsibilities of Ibn Saud's many heirs.