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With ailing king, questions of succession in Saudi Arabia

While King Abdullah is in New York for treatment, royal family jockeys for power at home.

Most observers believe that the next two or three crown princes will still emerge from this elderly first generation of sons. But at the same time, they also expect that second-generation royals, grandsons of the founder, will slip into more powerful positions.

King Abdullah is known to favor promoting members of this younger generation. He set an example just before departing for New York, appointing his son Prince Miteb head of the Saudi National Guard, a post the king has held since 1962.

The move was widely seen as a way to strengthen Prince Miteb’s hand in the family horse-trading over top jobs presumed to be happening behind palace doors.

Other prominent second-generation figures expected to fill high-profile jobs at some point in the near future include Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammad bin Nayef; Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Sultan; Eastern Province Governor Mohammed bin Fahd; former Intelligence Chief Turki bin Faisal, and Mecca Governor Khalid bin Faisal.

Future royal successions also will be different than those in the past because of the Allegiance Council, which was set up in 2006 by King Abdullah to give grandsons a role in choosing crown princes. The council also is to play a role in removing a king or crown prince incapacitated by illness.

Comprised of 35 sons and grandsons of King Abdul Aziz, it is an untested body. At least initially, it would likely rubber stamp decisions already reached through the time-worn process of family bargaining.

But the council’s procedures include a potentially interesting one: In the event of an impasse, the crown prince would be chosen by secret ballot.

Awadh Al Badi, a scholar at Riyadh’s King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, has written a monograph on the council. In a recent interview, he said that if Crown Prince Sultan predeceases the king, then it is “implicit” in the council’s bylaws that it should be called into session to help select the next crown prince.

And if Sultan succeeds King Abdullah, the bylaws are even more “explicit,” Al Badi said. “He has to go through the Allegiance Council” to choose a new crown prince.

“In the end,” added Al Badi, “the legitimacy has to come through the institution ... especially if there is no agreement. It’s the only legitimate institution now” for royal successions.