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In A Surprise Move, Saudi King Picks His Successors


A powerful monarchy known for its aged leaders made a surprising move this past week. Saudi Arabia's King Salman, already in his late 70s when he got the top job a few months ago, announced his heirs to the throne. The crown prince is a powerful nephew, and next in line is a favored son. NPR's Deborah Amos reports frequently from Saudi Arabia. She joins us now in our studios here in Washington. Thanks for being with us, Deb.


MARTIN: So the Saudi crown has typically been passed from one elderly brother to another elderly brother, all sons of the country's founder. Now they're going to the grandsons of the founder. What do we know about the new heirs apparent?

AMOS: This is a real dramatic shift for - generationally. So let's first talk about the top guy. This is Mohammed bin Nayef. His expertise comes as a counterterrorism guy. He's been in the Ministry of Interior, a professional, 55 years old. He was educated in the U.S., and he is well liked in the U.S. as well as being respected. His real claim to fame is that he was almost blown up in his own office by an al-Qaida operative. Next in line is the son of the king. He is a favorite. He's the youngest son. He's being groomed for power. That's what's clear.

MARTIN: So what do these appointments mean about Saudi Arabia's larger ambitions if anything?

AMOS: Well, they see a power vacuum in the region, and they have decided that they are going to fill it. Now, what you've seen is a much more muscular and active foreign policy. You saw it in Yemen. You've also seen it in Syria. They have stepped up their support for Syrian rebels there. They've reinvigorated a relationship with Turkey and Qatar, and the Syrian rebels have had some striking dramatic successes. And so all of these things are new for Saudi Arabia. They are doing things on their own.

MARTIN: How's that playing among the population? I mean, you talked about a more robust military presence by the Saudis in Syria and Yemen. How do Saudis feel about this?

AMOS: Domestically, it's been very popular - big billboards in downtown Riyadh with the new generation of princes. That is popular in a country where the majority are under 30. And so you now have lessened the gap between the age of the leadership and the population. It's also popular with regional Sunni Muslims. In fact, there is some suggestion that even ISIS has lost some of its appeal to new recruits because of this Saudi muscular policy, and also because Syrian rebels have had some success against the Assad regime in Syria.

MARTIN: Saudi Arabia's restrictions on women has been something that global media have been reporting for a long time. Anything we can infer about whether this new regime, this new lineup, might change the way it handles internal dissent on these particular issues?

AMOS: I think it's too early to tell. One of the casualties of the recent shakeup was Norah Al Faiz. She was the first female cabinet minister. She was sacked, and that was not a good sign. Now, at the same time, more Saudi women are working than ever before. There have been some advances, but Saudis - women who want more rights in the kingdom - are worried. Some are even fearful that they will go backwards.

MARTIN: NPR's Deborah Amos. Thanks so much for talking with us, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.