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Saudi King Names 78-Year-Old Nayef Bin Abdulaziz As His Successor

As expected, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has appointed his half-brother, 78-year-old Nayef bin Abdulaziz, crown prince. The news comes, after the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz Al Saud died on Saturday.

According to a tweet from the Saudi embassy in the United States, Prince Nayef becomes deputy prime minister, a position traditionally held by the crown prince, and keeps his position as minister of interior.

Again, Prince Nayef was expected to become crown prince and by most accounts, that means Saudi Arabia's close relationship with the U.S. and position on geopolitical issues will remain the same.

In a story previewing the choice, Reuters does point out that Prince Nayef is more conservative than the king:

Conservative even by Saudi Arabia's austere standards, Nayef is sometimes portrayed as putting the brakes on the king's cautious political reforms. Earlier this year he publicly admonished a member of the mainly consultative Shura Council who had called for a review of the ban on women driving.

However, some diplomats and analysts say Nayef, who was born in 1933 and has served as interior minister since 1975, may show a more pragmatic side as crown prince — and eventually as king.

Perhaps the more interesting part of the story, however, is that the choice reveals that the royal family is aging and not in a hurry to hand over power to a new generation. Time reports that could cause tension in the long run:

With most of those directly in line to the throne hobbling about with canes, hip replacements or in wheel chairs, one could be forgiven for thinking of Saudi palaces as particularly well-appointed old age homes. The next few decades in Saudi Arabia are likely to be marked by a succession of funerals and coronations as the top position in the world's largest oil exporter cycles through a generation that had more to do with the Kingdom's foundations than it does with the country's future. As the crown passes from head to head, it is likely to slow the process of reform and progress in a kingdom that in many ways still feels mired in the last century. The ruling family's authoritarian grip on power may provide stability in the short term, but with half the population under the age of 18, and with a leadership almost entirely above the age of 70, it seems inevitable that tensions will rise.

"These demographics are a warning bell no matter how old or young the leadership is," [says Gregory Gause, International Relations professor at the University of Vermont]. "This time the Saudis dodged the oncoming train of the Arab spring, but its not because they don't have problems. They do. Unemployment is high in Saudi, just like it was in Egypt and Tunisia."

Correction at 7:30 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this post referred to King Abdullah as being from Egypt. We've corrected that reference.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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