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Saudi hard line crown prince may mellow in power

DUBAI (AFP) ― The appointment of conservative Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as heir to the Saudi throne raises concerns he could halt reforms were he to take power, say analysts, who add, however, that he may instead show a softer, more pragmatic side.

“He has a strong reputation as an ultra-conservative ― close to religious and reactionary circles,” Gulf specialist Olivier Da Lage told AFP.

“He is hostile to Shiites and follows an iron fist policy against any opposition. He also has a tough stance towards Iran,” he added.

“But it is possible that once in power, he will show more openness.”

Prince Nayef, 78, who was appointed by King Abdullah late Thursday as the new crown prince, replaces his late brother Sultan, who died in the United States from cancer last week.

As interior minister for nearly four decades, Prince Nayef led a crackdown on Al-Qaeda. Seen as more conservative than the 87-year-old king, he likes to describe himself as a soldier under the command of the Saudi monarch.

Eleanor Gillespie, director of Cross-border Information which publishes the fortnightly Gulf States Newsletter, says that despite his tough reputation Prince Nayef could take a softer stance than expected if he came to power.

“The question is: is he conservative or does he have this reputation of a tough man because of his post as interior minister?”

“No one really knows if he would follow reforms when he becomes king. He may be more of a pragmatic man than people think. He could become like King Abdullah, people said the same thing about Abdullah when he was crown prince,” she said.

Gillespie underscored it “may prove hard for any successor to reverse king Abdullah’s legacy of gradual reform.”

Da Lage concurred with this analysis.

“If Nayef becomes king, reforms could slow down or stop, but he will not be able to reverse the decisions of the monarch,” said Da Lage.

The advanced ages of the King Abdullah as well as of his successor Crown Prince Nayef raise the specter of a series of quick successions in the kingdom where power is transferred horizontally.

Since the death of founding monarch King Abdul Aziz in 1953, five of his children have succeeded each other at the helm of the oil-rich powerhouse, entrenching government by the eldest as the norm.

“The problem with the horizontal succession is that most remaining sons of king Abdel Aziz are all in their 80s or 70s,” said Gillespie.

“This situation worries Western policy makers, but the ruling family has always managed a smooth succession in Saudi Arabia and will try hard to portray themselves as a unified force to outsiders.”

State television this week showed images of King Abdullah, who underwent a back operation, walking with difficulty and wearing a surgical mask at the funeral of prince Sultan, while Nayef looked tired after carrying the casket.

“People would like to see a younger king or crown prince but it is generally understood the family can’t jump to the younger grandsons generation because remaining sons of Ibn Saud still have a legitimate claim,” Gillespie said.

Experts say that Prince Nayef suffers from cancer, while his brother Prince Salman, governor of Riyadh and next in line, also faces health problems.

“At the same time, we have no clear indication” that the royal family would be ready “to skip a generation,” said Da Lage.

But, he noted, the rule of horizontal succession has at least prevented rivalries as changing the system in favor of the next generation would require a decision on “what line would be favored” among the children of Abdul Aziz.

Demographics, however, highlight the need for a shake-up, one analyst said.

“It is time to give a chance to the youth of the royal family, especially because young people make up the majority of the population in this Gulf state,” said Shamlan al-Issa, political science professor in Kuwait.