Ex-Riyadh governor will oversee multibillion-dollar weapons deals from Western allies
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah named former Riyadh governor Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz as the new defence minister on Saturday, as the world's top oil exporter moved to reshuffle key positions in a cabinet dominated by the ruling family.
The widely anticipated appointment was announced in a royal decree carried by state news channels and marks a promotion for the 76-year-old Prince Salman, who is a younger brother of both King Abdullah and Crown Prince Nayef.
Saudi Arabia's defence minister is responsible for securing multi-billion dollar arms purchases which have been used to cement the kingdom's relationships with top Western allies.
The octogenarian King Abdullah last month appointed the veteran Interior Minister Prince Nayef, aged about 77, as his heir after the death in New York of Crown Prince Sultan, who had been defence and aviation minister since 1962.
Saturday's decree also split the defence ministry from the kingdom's general civil aviation authority, which owns the national air carrier Saudi Arabian Airlines, better known as Saudia.
Another ruling family member, Prince Fahd bin Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Saud, was made head of the new aviation body, which is likely to oversee the eventual privatisation of Saudia and will report directly to the king.
Prince Salman, who was Riyadh governor for almost five decades, is seen as the third most important member of the al-Saud and a possible candidate to one day rule in the conservative Islamic kingdom.
However, King Abdullah chose not to name a second-deputy prime minister, a role that had been held by Nayef since 2009 and is seen as equivalent to deputy crown prince.
"There's no necessity to fill that role, but it's everybody's guess that Prince Salman is next in line after Nayef," said Hossein Shobokshi, a Saudi columnist.
Unlike in European monarchies, Saudi succession does not pass directly from father to eldest son, but has moved down a line of brothers born to the country's founder King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who died in 1953.
The post of Riyadh governor is seen as one of the most important in the country and was previously held by both Crown Prince Sultan and Crown Prince Nayef, before it was awarded to Prince Salman in 1962.
"Salman is often said to be the son who most physically resembles king Abdulaziz in stature and looks and he's incredibly respected among the tribes," said Robert Lacey, the author of two books about the kingdom.
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"As governor of Riyadh he's in the middle of (the powerful central region of) Nejd, so the central tribes and tribal chiefs have long looked to him as the regional font of patronage and honour."
Prince Sattam bin Abdulaziz was named Riyadh Governor after serving as deputy governor under Prince Salman. When Crown Prince Sultan died last month, it was Sattam who stood on the runway to greet world leaders who came to pay their respects.
Prince Mohammed bin Saad was named deputy Riyadh governor.
The decree also appointed Prince Khaled bin Sultan as Deputy Defence Minister after spending a decade as assistant defence minister to his father, Crown Prince Sultan.
Saturday's decree said the board of Saudia would be restructured, but it did not give details of who would now sit on the board.
Prince Fahd previously served as assistant minister of defence and aviation under Crown Prince Sultan.
The decree also said the new civil aviation authority would come under the direct control of King Abdullah, who pushed economic reforms including the privatisation of big state-owned companies early in his reign.
"He's been in the sector for some time as assistant to the former crown prince," said Shobokshi. "He's familiar with the sector. Now that he's officially in control of it, he will be handling the privatisation of the airline, the liberalisation of the skies, allowing competition and probably developing the airports into profit centres on their own."
In a series of other orders, King Abdullah formally made Crown Prince Nayef, who was appointed last month, the deputy prime minister and named him as his deputy on the kingdom's national defence committee, the nuclear agency and the supreme economic council.
Crown Prince Nayef's son, Prince Saud bin Nayef who is a former ambassador to Spain and deputy interior minister, was made head of his father's court.