New Saudi king moves quickly to avoid future power struggle

Saudi Arabia's newly ascended King Salman buries his predecessor, King Abdullah

Saudi Arabia's newly ascended King Salman buried his predecessor, King Abdullah, on Friday, then moved quickly at a time of regional turmoil to allay fear of a looming power struggle among hundreds of princes in the next generation of the House of Saud.

Salman, 79 and reported to have Alzheimer's disease, is the next-to-last of Saudi founder Abdulaziz al Saud's 45 sons likely to rule the kingdom. He signaled his commitment to the conservative policies of Abdullah when he endorsed his late half brother's designation of Abdulaziz al Saud's last son, 69-year-old Prince Muqrin, as next in line for the Saudi throne.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Saudi King Salman: In the Jan. 24 Section A, an article about King Salman, the new ruler of Saudi Arabia, said that he was reported to have Alzheimer's disease. The Times has no independent evidence of the king's mental health. Lawyers for the Royal Court of Saudi Arabia assert that such reports are untrue and have "not a shred of evidence to substantiate" them.
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But just hours after taking the helm of the oil-rich desert kingdom, Salman issued a surprising decree naming a 55-year-old Western-educated nephew,Prince Mohammad ibn Nayif, as deputy crown prince to succeed Muqrin. That unprecedented move to chart a clear leadership path beyond the aging sons of the prolific Saudi founder, who is also known as Ibn Saud, appeared aimed at stifling any rivalry for power among the multitude of grandsons.

Mohammad has been Saudi Arabia's interior minister since 2012 and spent years in senior administrative roles within the notorious police and security forces run by his late father,Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, for nearly three decades, and as such carries some responsibility for the brutality and rampant rights abuses of which the ministry's forces are accused.

But Mohammad has also been at the forefront of the kingdom's counter-terrorism efforts, including Saudi Arabia's assistance with U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State militants rampaging to the north in Syria and Iraq. He is also credited with establishing the widely admired deradicalization program that reintegrates Saudi militants released from U.S.-run prisons for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram, Afghanistan.

Flanked by political chaos and unbridled extremist militias in Yemen and Iraq, Saudi Arabia confronts a multitude of domestic and foreign threats to its preeminence as the world's biggest oil power and controlling force in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

The kingdom's heavy dependence on oil revenue in a plunging market, tension with ultraconservative Wahhabi Muslim clerics and social pressures for enhancing the rights of women and minorities also mar the veneer of stability in a neighborhood ravaged by the extremist groups of Islamic State to the north and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on its southern border.

Nearly half of the kingdom's 27 million residents are younger than 25, portending an expanding force of social media-savvy proponents of change and modernity after decades of rule by elderly conservatives.

Ninety-year-old Abdullah died at 1 p.m. Friday at a Riyadh hospital after a severe bout of pneumonia. He was buried, swathed in a pale shroud and carried on a plank by dozens of grandsons from the capital's Imam Turki ibn Abdullah Grand Mosque to the public Al-Oud cemetery, where he was buried before sunset in an unmarked grave.

The afternoon funeral was attended by Middle Eastern monarchs and a few presidents from countries near enough to Saudi Arabia to travel to the ceremonies, which by Islamic practice must be conducted before the next sundown after a believer's death.

Saudi Arabia's more austere form of Islam eschews public displays of grief and elaborate ritual, even for its monarchs, who are among the world's richest men. Abdullah was reported to have a net worth of $20 billion.

Vice President Joe Biden and a wide array of world leaders planned to travel to Saudi Arabia to pay their respects at weekend memorials for the late king.

Little is expected to change under Salman's rule, Middle East analysts say. The former defense minister and deputy prime minister is expected to continue the cautious reforms undertaken by Abdullah, such as the crackdown on corruption and the slow induction of women into public roles. The late king brought 30 women into the Shura Council, a legislative advisory body, but held fast against rising pressure for freedoms such as driving and broader inclusion in the workforce.

Salman's ascension guarantees a smooth transition that is unlikely to cause major upsets at home or abroad, according to many of those who study the secretive royal family. That status quo is expected to preserve both the convergence and difference of views on major issues between the kingdom and the United States.

"I think that many of the same issues that were a source of contention between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah will remain to be sources of disagreement under King Salman," said Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington. "I expect continuity in most, if not all, major foreign policy issues, certainly in the short term.

"Down the road, King Salman will likely try to put his stamp on the throne one way or another, but it remains to be seen whether that would be in the form of a major reassessment of relations with the US. I think it is unlikely."

In Iran, Saudi Arabia's longtime rival for influence in the Middle East, there is little expectation that Abdullah's death would alter the deep enmity that has fueled hostilities and proxy battles throughout the region, including in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain.

"In the near future, there will not be any letup between the two adversaries," said Nader Karimi Juni, a politcal analyst in Tehran. "Iran and Saudi Arabia will never be friends. Each country has a hostile ideology toward the other."

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other officials offered their official condolences, but not much more was said publicly.

At 79, Salman's reign could be a short one, as might that of Muqrin, whose views and priorities have been formed by the same council of royal elders that defines policy for ruling the kingdom.

"The Saudi government is a big ship, and it steers very slowly," said Jon Alterman, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of its Middle East program.

"The king has an entourage … one that in many cases has been with him for decades. There will be a change in personalities, people who have been waiting for a long time to settle scores, to have the opportunity to do things they think are important to do," Alterman said. "But the reality is that the differences between the princes diminish as they get closer to being king."

Salman promised in a televised speech hours after Abdullah's death to continue "the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment" by Abdulaziz in 1932.

"Although it is an authoritarian political system, you have to reach a measure of consensus within the elite," said Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

Salman was governor of Riyadh province for nearly five decades and earned a reputation for "austerity, hard work and discipline," the Arab News said in a commentary.

The new crown prince, Muqrin, is seen as another likely place holder after Salman, although the youngest of Abdulaziz's sons will be the first Western-educated king if, in fact, he succeeds his half brother.

Muqrin graduated from the Royal Air Force College in Britain and became a pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force before taking on political duties as governor of Medina province and then head of Saudi intelligence.

Crown prince-in-waiting Mohammad — son of Salman's brother Nayif, who died in 2012 — is an even more familiar figure among Western allies and known to be despised by the militants he has spent recent years trying to defeat. Mohammad narrowly escaped an attack by an Al Qaeda suicide bomber in 2009, when he served as Saudi security chief.

Mohammad will retain his position as interior minister, according to the decree announcing his designation as deputy crown prince.

Before Salman designated Mohammad as the first grandson to be groomed for the throne, Middle East analysts had warned that any power struggle among the populous third generation could only add to the region's myriad wars, rebellions and militant violence.

The last of the current generation faced unprecedented challenges to establish a predictable transfer of power to avoid "questions of legitimacy not faced in the last century of Saudi rule," observed former CIA veteran Bruce Reidel, now with the Brookings Institution.

Special correspondents Sherif Tarek in Cairo and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.

Twitter: @cjwilliamsLAT @alexzavis

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