FRIDAY'S announcement by the royal court in Riyadh of the appointment of Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz as the second deputy prime minister by King Abdullah, took many Saudi observers by surprise.
This effectively means that when both the king and the crown prince are out of the country, Prince Naif will run the country. With Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz allegedly suffering from colon cancer since 2004, and currently abroad reportedly recovering from an operation, and King Abdullah leaving soon to attend the Arab League Summit in Doha and then the G20 Summit in London, that means Naif will have a crack at running the country rather soon.
Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, a known liberal, made public on Saturday dissent within the royal family over Naif's appointment, releasing a statement asking for a clarification about the appointment and saying that his appointment should be subject to approval by the Allegiance Council, which is made up of royal elders.
"I call on the royal court to clarify what is meant by this nomination and that it does not mean that he (Prince Naif) will become crown prince," Prince Talal said in a faxed statement sent to Reuters.
"The latest nomination of the second deputy prime minister will give the impression that he will automatically become crown prince," said Prince Talal.
It should be noted here that Prince Talal does not have much political clout in the kingdom because of his past opposition to the royal family in the 1960s when he started a Free Princes movement from Cairo to try and launch a constitutional monarchy in the kingdom. His passport was canceled at the time and he lived in exile for many years before finally returning to Saudi Arabia. Even so, he is a son of the founder of the kingdom, and his public criticism of Naif's appointment is unusual.
Some Saudi analysts said that the Allegiance Council only had to give its consent to Prince Naif becoming crown prince when the succession actually takes place. For the time being, Prince Sultan is still the crown prince, and they noted that the king could appoint whomever he wanted, and as many people he wanted, to deputy prime minister positions.
"Prince Naif, believed to be 75, is perceived as one of the most conservative forces in the kingdom and an opponent of reforms that may reduce the clout of both the monarchy and the religious establishment in the kingdom, the world's leading oil exporter," reported Reuters.
When asked earlier this week what he thought of women becoming members of the Shoura Council, he said that he did not think it was necessary. He also said that elections for the council were not needed.
Some Saudi observers had expected King Abdullah to skip a whole generation of very old senior royals and appoint a younger prince to the post of second deputy prime minister. King Abdullah is believed to be 85, Prince Sultan 84, and Prince Naif, 75.
Is this the beginning a push-back on reforms achieved over the past seven years in the kingdom? It's too soon to tell. We will have to wait and see how events unfold. Maybe the king still has a surprise or two up his sleeve.