updated 3/27/2009 8:29:55 PM ET 2009-03-28T00:29:55

King Abdullah has appointed Saudi Arabia's powerful interior minister and his half brother as the nation's second deputy prime minister, according to an announcement late Friday.

The appointment indicates a succession order in the royal family, after four years of speculation over who will be the next-in-line once the current heir, Prince Sultan, becomes king.

A royal statement carried by the official SPA news agency says Prince Nayef will take over the post, which is seen as a crown-prince-in-waiting.

The Saudi constitution does not require the king to appoint a second deputy prime minister but Friday's move is also important because it will allow Abdullah to travel abroad.

With Sultan away in the United States on medical treatment, Nayef's appointment will ensure that when Abdullah goes to the Arab Summit in Qatar next week and later to the G-20 meetings, somebody will be in charge at home.

However, Nayef's appointment as second to the throne will still have to go through the Allegiance Association, set up by Abdullah in 2006 and composed of his brothers and some of his nephews who all vote by a secret ballot to choose future kings and crown princes. The Allegiance is expected to have the final say on who becomes crown prince after Sultan, who is in his 80s.

Nayef's appointment comes five months after Sultan, who is the first deputy prime minister, left for New York for medical tests and later surgery. Rumors have circulated about the health of Sultan, who is in his 80s, but senior Saudi officials have said he is doing better after surgery.

Under the monarchy, Abdullah also acts as prime minister.

Second in line
The Saudi monarchy was established in 1932 after its founder King Abdulaziz united the country's various regions under his command.

Abdullah, now in his mid 80s, assumed the throne in Aug. 2005 after the death of his long-ailing half brother. He had already been a de-facto ruler for a decade and the transition to the leadership passed smoothly of this key U.S. ally and oil giant that has grappled with Islamic extremists and debated the need for reform.

But within hours of the announcement, another of Abdullah's half brothers, Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz, issued a statement saying the appointment of Nayef, who is in his 70s, should not come at the expense of the Allegiance's authority and that the automaticity of Nayef becoming second-in-line should not be assumed.

Talal told The Associated Press that Nayef's appointment was just "an administrative nomination."

"I am appealing to King Abdullah to have the royal court declare what is meant by this nomination and that it does not mean that he will be the crown prince," Talal said.

Talal is an outspoken prince who holds no government posts and is considered something of an outsider within the royal family. He was forced briefly into exile in the 1960s amid reports at the time that he planned a revolt.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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