A council of the multitudinous Saudi royal family named the kingdom's 76-year-old defense minister and former governor of bustling Riyadh as next in line to succeed King Abdullah, official Saudi media reported Monday.
Crown Prince Salman ibn Abdulaziz succeeds his brother Nayif, 78, whose death Saturday was the second in less than a year of an heir to Abdullah's throne. Succession in the House of Saud, as the royal family is called, typically passes from brother to brother among the more than two dozen sons of the kingdom's founding monarch, King Abdulaziz al Saud.
Grandsons of Abdulaziz are also eligible to be chosen as crown prince by the Allegiance Council, an appointed body of Saudi princes, and some analysts had speculated after Nayif's death that the kingdom might reach into the younger generation for a new next-in-line.
As governor of Riyadh, Salman oversaw the transformation of the city of 150,000 inhabitants as it grew to a vibrant tourism and business center now home to 5 million. Riyadh became the capital in the 1980s.
Salman is said to favor strategic and economic collaboration with Western countries, including the United States, but is also known to take a hard line on some political and social problems, as when he had Riyadh swept of beggars last year. Foreign paupers were deported and impoverished Saudis were sent to a rehabilitation program under the Interior Ministry, then run by the authoritarian Nayif.
Salman spent 48 years as governor of Riyadh before his appointment to the Defense Ministry in November, when Nayif was named crown prince after the death of his half-brother and previous heir to the throne, Sultan.
The Saudi royal family is estimated to number 15,000, with hundreds eligible for succession under the rules revised five years ago by Abdullah, who is now 87.
Salman is more progressive and pragmatic than his brother and brings to the kingdom's hierarchy half a century of leadership experience from Riyadh, said Bruce Riedel, a former senior foreign policy advisor to the last four U.S. presidents and now a Middle East scholar at the Brookings Institution. As governor, Salman oversaw the construction of desalination plants, massive highway and other infrastructure development and the building of huge housing complexes, Riedel said.
In his short term as defense minister, Salman girded the Sunni Muslim-dominated Saudi military to be ready for conflict with Shiite Muslim-led Iran, with whom Riyadh has tense relations. Salman also pressed neighboring Yemen to do battle against Al Qaeda militants who have taken refuge there to plot and carry out attacks on Western targets.
Like Nayif, Salman's health is reportedly poor, but Riedel predicts he will survive to succeed King Abdullah as head of the world's largest oil-producing country.
--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Saudi Defense Minister Prince Salman ibn Abdulaziz welcomes Persian Gulf Arab leaders at last month's meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Salman was named crown prince on Monday, following the death of his brother, Crown Prince Nayif, on Saturday. Credit: Hassan Ammar/Associated Press