King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud © Getty

Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, king of Saudi Arabia for a decade and de facto ruler for almost 20 years, is in hospital with pneumonia after years of declining health. His designated successor, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, reassured the cabinet on the health of the monarch on Monday but Saudis fear the 90-year-old’s condition might prove terminal.

A popular king, Abdullah’s succession has been carefully planned but his immediate successors are themselves elderly and there are questions over who will succeed them.

Who will take over?

According to Saudi tradition, the monarchy passes down the line of sons of the founder of the modern kingdom, Abdulaziz bin Saud, or Ibn Saud, who died in 1953.

The crown prince, Salman bin Abdulaziz, was appointed in 2012 and is much more active than his ailing half-brother, but he is 79 and there are also concerns about his health. In 2007, King Abdullah formed an allegiance council of family members to codify the informal succession.

In 2014 the king named his younger brother and close ally, former intelligence chief Prince Muqrin as second crown prince, to ensure a smooth succession after Prince Salman. The 69 year-old Prince Muqrin is the youngest son of Ibn Saud with the ambition or disposition to rule.

Are there any problems with the plan?

Not immediately, but while diplomats expect a smooth handover of power, uncertainty could arise through festering rivalries that will probably intensify as the new leaders carve out power bases for their immediate relatives and supporters within the family. King Abdullah has promoted his sons to positions of power in recent years to support their future prospects.

Crown Prince Salman is a member of the powerful Sudairi clan, whose leader was King Abdullah’s predecessor, King Fahd. The sons of one of Ibn Saud’s favourite wives, Hissa al-Sudairi, the Sudairis have played a pivotal role in the kingdom’s political life, though their power has diminished with the deaths of two of these seven full-brothers, former crown princes Sultan and Nayef.

Some analysts speculate Prince Salman may later wish to nominate his own crown prince after taking the throne. Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the youngest Sudairi who was removed as interior minister in 2012, could also launch a comeback as heir apparent.

When will the ’younger’, third generation of the al-Saud get to rule?

Analysts also speculate on when the House of Saud’s rolling gerontocracy will allow power to pass down to the next generation — the grandchildren of Ibn Saud. A younger cadre of leaders may be more adept at handling the widening societal divisions that pit young activists calling for greater democracy and social freedom against hardline salafi purists, a number of whom are quietly supportive of violent Islamist extremist groups.

Of the third generation, the interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef, is well regarded internationally. King Abdullah’s second son, Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, is commander of the country’s national guard and has become an increasingly powerful player. Others are jostling for position ahead of this long-awaited generational shift.

Why does the succession matter?

Saudi Arabia is at the centre of the global oil price collapse. The world’s swing producer has declined to intervene to prop up prices by cutting back output. The strategy is viewed as a means to protect its market share, with Riyadh arguing that it cannot assume the sole burden of protecting prices by lowering production. Blessed with $750bn of foreign exchange reserves, the country is better placed than its rivals to absorb the burden of lower oil prices.

Since the Arab uprisings that exploded in 2011, however, the government has committed itself to higher spending to retain the loyalty of its citizens. Lower oil prices have left a $40bn deficit in this year’s expansionary budget. The prospect of a sustained dip in oil prices has prompted billionaire Saudi royal Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to raise the alarm. Tricky economic reforms aimed at boosting the productivity and level of employment within the Saudi population, as well as reducing costly subsidies, are also potential pitfalls for a new king.

Regional threats also underpin domestic security concerns. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, has revived concerns about the domestic potency of Sunni jihadi elements. Attacks on westerners and a bloody assault on Shia worshippers have raised concerns. On Monday, a suicide attack near the Iraqi border, where Isis militants are active, further ratcheted up tensions.

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