The great survivor holds on

Saudi Arabia’s veteran oil minister Ali Naimi — the great survivor of the oil industry — has just survived the country’s greatest power shake-up. King Salman’s decision to name his 55-year-old nephew, Mohammad bin Nayef, as his successor, instead of his half-brother Miqrin, cements the steps Salman took when he assumed the throne in January, moving the line of succession away from the remaining ageing sons of founder king Abdel-Aziz to the younger third generation of al-Saud princes.

The post of 79-year-old Naimi appears safe for now, as he oversees the recent change in Riyadh’s oil policy to defend market share, rather than the oil price. But some of the changes announced today signal that preparations are under way to replace him, as he stands on the brink of retirement from a lifelong career as a trusted oil technocrat.

The president and chief executive of state-owned Saudi Aramco, Khalid al-Falih, has been named as the company’s chairman — a post Naimi held until today. And al-Falih has been made a member of cabinet for the first time, assuming the post of health minister. The health ministry has, over the past year, faced a crisis owing to an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers). Al-Falih’s appointment signals that he is trusted as a problem solver. Appointing him as the next oil minister would only require a simple cabinet reshuffle. Al-Falih’s rise within the Saudi oil industry has mirrored Naimi’s, and the oil minister is known to favour him as his successor.

But another of the king’s sons — prince Abdul Aziz bin Salman — is also seen as a possible contender for the post. Prince Abdul Aziz was promoted from assistant minister of oil to deputy minister in January and given ministerial rank. He is a long-serving oil ministry technocrat, focusing in recent years on establishing the Riyadh-based International Energy Forum — a body aimed at fostering producer-consumer dialogue — and overseeing a drive to encourage energy efficiency in Saudi Arabia.

Salman has further strengthened his own line by naming his son, Mohammad bin Salman, as deputy crown prince and successor to Mohammad bin Nayef. The move takes away the uncertainty that had surrounded the Saudi lineage for many years — as one ageing brother took over from another to ensure that one of the late king Abdel-Aziz’s sons was monarch.

The appointment of Mohammad bin Salman as second in line to the throne concentrates considerable power in the hands of the young prince, who is in his early thirties. He is defence minister, head of the royal court — which means he controls access to the king — and chairman of a powerful committee that oversees all economic activity, including the oil sector. That committee was formed in January and replaced the supreme petroleum council, although its remit extends well beyond energy to all economic, social and educational affairs.

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