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After King Abdullah's Death, Saudi Arabia's Line to Throne in Spotlight

As the sons of King Abdul Aziz age out of the position, the many possible heirs to the Saudi throne are seeing what the future will hold for them.
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With Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in poor health before his death, royal watchers already anticipated Crown Prince Salman — his half-brother and a popular figure within the kingdom — would ascend to the throne.

Salman — casting aside fears of a power vacuum — ensured a seamless transition. Just hours after Abdullah's death early Friday at age 90, the new monarch also elevated his youngest half-brother, Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin, 69, as crown prince. To replace Muqrin, Salman nominated nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, as deputy crown prince, having served as the oil-rich kingdom's interior minister since 2012.

The hierarchy shuffling settles any question of succession when it comes to Saudi Arabia's top spot — presumably until Mohammed assumes control. Still, that won't necessarily prevent an internal struggle for power once Salman's reign ends.

Who gets to be king?

The royal family, known as the ruling House of Saud, numbers in the several thousands — possibly as many as 10,000, including the extended kin. But not just any of the male members can jockey to be the head of state.

Following the death in 1953 of the Saudi state's founder, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, his sons — considered princes — have been the heirs to his throne. Abdul-Aziz fathered 36 male children who lived to adulthood, and six of them, including Salman, have risen to king.

But several of the sons are reportedly in poor health, including Salman, and with the youngest one pushing 70, men in the third generation of the dynasty are being eyed as successors.

How many people are in line to the throne?

Outside of king, the positions that hold the most importance are the crown prince and the deputy crown prince, who are first and second in line to the throne, respectively.

Newly installed Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed is actually the first grandson of Abdul-Aziz to be considered an heir apparent. (Mohammad's father, the former Crown Prince Nayef, had been first in line to the throne before his death in 2012.) King Abdullah formalized a council before his death made up of 35 surviving sons and grandsons of Abdul-Aziz to help decide succession issues and confirm that one's merit — not age — would determine which grandsons can rise to the level of deputy crown prince. Abdul-Aziz reportedly has "hundreds" of grandchildren.

Can daughters or granddaughters be heirs apparent?

While King Abdullah is credited with ushering in more freedoms for women, including the right to vote and hold municipal office, the possibility of a female holder of the throne is a nonstarter. There has never been the official title of queen bestowed upon a woman. Informally, Effat al Thunayyan, the wife of former King Faisal, was given the moniker because she was so beloved.

Female royals are instead referred to as princesses, and have no connection to the throne since it only can pass to the male heirs.

Will palace in-fighting threaten the stability of succession?

For now, the royals will want to rally around King Salman, 79, who is widely viewed as honorable and pragmatic, and has the gravitas to balance Saudi Arabia's modernity with its ultraconservative Muslim roots.

But the choice of Mohammed as deputy crown prince also signifies a departure from the regular modus operandi of selecting princes for government positions based on their seniority. As a nephew of King Salman, his appointment is particularly intriguing because of the manner and swiftness with which it was executed. This transfer of power to the next generation was perceived as being highly problematic due to the abundance of sons of previous kings who could potentially have been nominated as successors to their fathers.

Mohammad, however, is respected for his counter-terrorism acumen. "Times are dangerous," said Joseph Kechichian, a scholar of Gulf Arab ruling families. "Mohammed bin Nayef's appointment shows Salman feels it's important to speak quickly with a single determined voice in the face of all these threats."

But the Al Sauds, one of the world's wealthiest and most powerful families, has had its own factions vying over major issues. And while the family has largely put on a face of unity to its people, future power grabs behind palace doors may be expected as peace in the region remains unstable.

Reuters contributed to this report.