RIYADH (Reuters) - The world’s eyes are on Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Wednesday to make the widely expected choice of veteran Interior Minister Prince Nayef as his new heir, a decision that would emphasize stability in the top oil exporter.
The funeral of Crown Prince Sultan on Tuesday set the stage for the high-profile appointment in Saudi Arabia, a major U.S. ally with an aging leadership trying to reconcile conservative traditions with the needs of a modern economy and a young, increasingly outward-looking population.
“In the political system this is an important event, but the system is designed to ensure continuity,” said Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist at National Commercial Bank in Jeddah.
Prince Nayef, born in 1933, is sometimes described by Saudi liberals as an anti-reform conservative who is likely to take a cautious approach to social and political change, while viewing foreign policy through the lens of national security.
However, former diplomats to Riyadh and some analysts say the man who has served as interior minister since 1975 may show a more pragmatic side as crown prince -- and eventually as king.
In his six-year-old reign, the octogenarian King Abdullah has pushed changes aimed at creating jobs by liberalizing markets and loosening the grip of religious hardliners over education and social policy.
The Sunni Arab country holds a vital position on the world stage as it dominates oil markets, holds profound influence over Muslims through its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, and faces turbulence in its neighbors and a regional rival in Shi‘ite Muslim Iran.
The funeral for Sultan, who died of colon cancer in New York on Saturday, took place in Riyadh’s sprawling Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque.
The Royal Court said it would be open to accept condolences for three days. A U.S. delegation headed by Vice President Joe Biden is expected in Riyadh on Thursday.
King Abdullah was chief mourner at the mosque, where Saudis in red-and-white headdresses were crammed between dozens of pillars behind the kneeling Grand Mufti as he led prayers.
The monarch, who left hospital on Saturday night after a back operation last week, remained seated for the prayers and wore a surgical mask over his face.
Among the mourners who went forward to greet King Abdullah after the prayer recital was Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
King Abdullah, who is in day-to-day charge of Saudi Arabia despite his old age and back trouble, must also name a new defense minister -- a post held by Sultan.
One possible candidate is Prince Khaled bin Sultan, a son of the late crown prince who headed Saudi forces during the 1991 Gulf War and has been a deputy defense minister for 10 years.
The job could also go to Riyadh governor Prince Salman, seen as the next most senior royal after the king and Prince Nayef.
Given Sultan’s long illness, Prince Nayef, born in 1933, has for many years been seen as the likely new crown prince.
“We need young blood,” said a Jeddah resident in his 50s. “If they appoint another crown prince from (this generation) we will find ourselves in the same position in a few years because they are all old and we worry that the young ones may later struggle over power.”
Nayef’s conservative credentials as head of a ministry that has arrested political activists have caused disquiet among liberal Saudis.
He was also quoted soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States as doubting that any of his compatriots had been involved when 15 of the 19 hijackers were in fact Saudis.
But Saudi-watchers said they anticipated few immediate national policy shifts if Nayef becomes crown prince.
“We do not expect any major or sudden changes in Saudi oil or foreign policy simply because the Saudi monarchy appears extremely cognizant of domestic challenges and their dependence on hydrocarbons to meet these challenges,” said a research note issued by RBS.
During the long illness of Sultan and absences of the king, Nayef stood in for his elder brothers, meeting world leaders and managing the kingdom’s day-to-day affairs.
“I don’t think there will be a substantial change of direction,” said Hossein Shobokshi, a Saudi columnist. “The country has always opted for the non-surprising method. So we don’t see any big decisions in policy.”
Editing by Ralph Gowling