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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 October 2006, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Saudi succession laws overhauled
By Magdi Abdelhadi
Arab Affairs Analyst, BBC World Service

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
Succession has been a thorny issue in Saudi Arabia
Saudi commentators have hailed a new law of succession as a milestone in the history of the conservative oil-rich kingdom.

The law was issued by King Abdullah last week with the apparent aim of reducing uncertainty around the transfer of power in one of the world's biggest oil-producing countries.

The daily Al-Watan lavished praise on King Abdullah, describing him as a man "with an enlightened vision and foresight", adding that the "the new law for succession marks a turning point in political reform and has more than one meaning".

The Saudi website, Elaf, said the royal decree was a "victory for modernity over tradition".

Power struggles

The question of succession in this oil rich kingdom has always been a thorny issue because of lack of clarity in the rules of succession and reliable information about what actually takes place in the corridors of the secretive Saudi royal court.

In the case of a terminally ill monarch, like King Abdullah's predecessor King Fahd, there were fears and intense speculation about power struggles threatening to plunge the country into a major crisis and undermining its stability.

Stability in Saudi Arabia matters not only for its people, but for the whole world because it is one of the biggest oil producers.

The late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia
The late King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995

Now the new law aims to make the process less opaque to reassure the Saudis as well as the international oil markets.

King Abdullah has established a new body, the Allegiance Commission, exclusively made up of male heirs to the founder of the kingdom, King Abdulaziz bin al-Saud, which will have the job of ensuring the smooth transfer of power.

The aim is to avoid a repeat of what happened with King Fahd, who was ill for nearly 10 years.

Permanently incapacitated

There was no legal mechanism whereby he could be declared incapable of performing his duties and to declare the crown prince king.

The new law, which does not apply to the current king and crown prince, is set to change that.

If the king becomes too ill to do his job, a newly formed medical committee will be invited to submit a report to the Allegiance Commission about the king's health.

If he is deemed to be permanently incapacitated, then the crown prince will be invited to step in.

If the king and the crown prince are both terminally ill, then the Allegiance Commission will lead the country in a care-taker capacity, until it chooses a new monarch.

Future rulers will have to seek the approval of the commission for their choice of crown prince.

In the event of a disagreement, the matter will be settled by a vote on the King's choice, or another candidate picked up by the commission.

Constitutional crisis

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
The Saudi royal family has thousands of princes

This means that the decision to choose the future ruler of the kingdom will no longer be in the hands of one person alone - the king - but a group of princes.

Under the title "Thanks to a Humane King" Saudi writer Turki al-Hamad wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat "for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia, the head of the state has given up some of his powers... for the sake of stability".

The changes will go some way towards satisfying those who have long feared internecine disputes within the royal family that could trigger a major constitutional crisis.

Crucially, in a royal family with several thousand princes, the law does not specify how many of them will be on the new commission.

And that leaves the door open for future disputes.

For Saudi reformers, the new law will probably be seen as nothing more than tinkering with a system they already consider deeply autocratic and which concentrates power within the royal family.

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