Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has surprised many in the kingdom by appointing his 70-year-old half brother Muqrin as second deputy prime minister.
The role traditionally signals the appointed prince would become the next crown prince and so second in line for the throne, but observers said the prince was unlikely to be a contender.
In July, the king replaced Prince Muqrin as intelligence chief with his nephew, the hawkish former ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan, amid criticism of the elderly prince’s performance.
The move was also part of a trend towards empowering the second generation of princes after the death of two crown princes in the past 18 months. The king in November replaced his half brother, interior minister Prince Ahmed, with his nephew, counter-terrorism chief Mohamed bin Naif.
One of the questions has been whether the king, who is 89 years old, would pick a second-generation figure as the next crown prince. Saudi observers say the king may be leaving the contentious choice of who deserves the throne among many prominent younger princes to the next king, who is expected to be Crown Prince Salman.
“The future king of Saudi Arabia is the one to decide who will be next line,’’ said a Saudi observer close to the royal family. “King Abdullah is opening the door for more choices.’’
Prince Muqrin’s new role means he will run day-to-day government affairs and head cabinet meetings in the absence of the king and his crown prince.
Observers say the king, who is slowly recovering from back surgery, is seeking to secure the stability of the world’s largest oil producer in the face of regional turmoil.
Saudi Arabia’s basic law, which is considered a sort of constitution, stipulates that the throne passes to the most competent and senior sons and grandsons of the founder Abdelaziz. But two crown princes died within few months of each other last year. Crown Prince Salman, who is 77, is reportedly suffering from ill health.
“I think the king chose Prince Muqrin because he is very close to him and there is no threat of him fighting for the throne in case they wanted to move to the second generation,” said Waleed Abukhair, a Jeddah-based activist. “The king could have done more but he meets resistance from the family. At least now there won’t be a power vacuum in case something happens to the top two.’’