RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has appointed his defense minister, Prince Salman, as heir apparent, opting for stability and a continuation of cautious reforms at a time of challenges for the world’s biggest oil exporter.
Crown Prince Salman, 76, has built a reputation for pragmatism and is likely swiftly to assume substantial day-to-day responsibilities from a king 13 years his senior.
Since the death of King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the country’s founding father, the succession has moved along a line of his sons. Salman becomes Abdullah’s third heir after the deaths of two older brothers: Crown Prince Sultan last October and Crown Prince Nayef, the interior minister, on Saturday.
The swift decision came as no surprise; analysts had already said they expected Salman to continue the gradual social and economic reforms adopted by King Abdullah as well as Saudi Arabia’s moderate oil pricing policy.
At stake is the future direction of a country that sits on more than one fifth of the world’s proven global oil reserves.
As crown prince and later as king, Salman will have to tackle challenges ranging from an al Qaeda security threat to systemic joblessness at a time of unparalleled Middle Eastern turmoil, all set against a regional rivalry with Shi’ite Iran.
Like other Sunni-Muslim-led Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia is nervous about the rise of Islamist movements such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in the turmoil created by successive “Arab Spring” revolutions, as well as growing discontent among the region’s Shi’ite population groups.
“I would predict we will see more Saudi activity abroad, particularly considering what is going on throughout the Arab world today,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent former Saudi newspaper editor.
“Prince Salman is pragmatic; I think he will not mind dealing with Islamist Arabs like the Muslim Brotherhood.”
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