Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, 79-year-old King Salman, takes over after the death of his half-brother King Abdullah – but is his future heir the only likely break from a controversial family rule?
The new Saudi King Salman has pledged to maintain existing energy and foreign policies, but as the country’s supreme leader faces huge long-term domestic challenges.
His job will be made tougher by the plunging oil price in recent months and the rise of the Islamic State group in neighbouring Iraq and Syria – the group has vowed to topple the Saud dynasty.
We will continue, God willing, to hold the straight course that this country has followed Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman
King Salman (pictured above) is reputedly pragmatic and adept at managing the delicate balance of clerical, tribal, royal and western interests that feed into Saudi policy making.
He is thought unlikely to change the kingdom’s approach to foreign affairs or energy sales, saying on his succession: “We will continue, God willing, to hold the straight course that this country has followed since its establishment by the late King Abdulaziz.”
However, the heirs appointed to follow King Salman appear to offer the greatest hope of a break from the family’s traditional rule.
The new king named two younger successors, an important stabilising move given his own succession at his reported age of 79: his youngest half-brother Muqrin, 69, becomes crown prince, and nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, becomes deputy crown prince.
Crown Prince Muqrin is seen as a relative progressive in the ruling family, with an apparent grasp on the need for long-term reform.
A former fighter pilot, he has voiced traditional hawkish views on Iran, and has long been a member of the ruling family’s top circle of strategic decision makers and intelligence chief from 2005-12.
But the 69-year-old heir to King Salman will be the first Saudi monarch born after Saudi Arabia struck oil in 1939, and the first to attend a western university instead of the home classes run by clerics in Riyadh.
King Abdullah (pictured above) died on Thursday aged 90, having ruled Saudi Arabia as king since 2005.
He had run the country as de facto regent for a decade before that after his predecessor, King Fahd, suffered a debilitating stroke.
He will be remembered for his long years of service to the Kingdom David Cameron
David Cameron, who visited Saudi Arabia in 2012, said: “I am deeply saddened to hear of the death of the custodian of the two holy mosques, His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abd Al Aziz Al Saud.
“He will be remembered for his long years of service to the kingdom, for his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths.
“My thoughts and prayers are with the Saudi royal family and the people of the kingdom at this sad time.
“I sincerely hope that the long and deep ties between our two kingdoms will continue and that we can continue to work together to strengthen peace and prosperity in the world.”
The head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, who is currently in Davos for the World Economic Forum, said it was too early to say how his death would impact the global economy.
She said that although Saudi Arabia had often been portrayed as diminishing women’s role, she hailed King Abdullah as a “strong advocate of women”.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
President Obama also paid tribute, saluting the late king’s commitment to close US-Saudi ties.
The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah’s legacy President Obama
“As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions,” Mr Obama said in a statement. “One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the US-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond.
“The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah’s legacy,” the statement added.
Thousands flocked to the religious site of Mecca, to mourn the king today: