Saudi dynasty faces generational choice

* 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.

CONSENSUS

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

Crown Prince!'."

GRANDSONS

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.

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