Saudi Arabia issues rules for succession council

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RIYADH, Oct 8 (Reuters) Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah issued rules today guiding the conduct of a body set up last year to regulate political succession in the world's biggest oil exporter.

The Saudi throne has passed from one brother to the next since the death of Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, the founder of the state. With many of his 44 sons now dead or aging, power could soon move onto the next generation; his grandsons.

Western diplomats have welcomed efforts to regulate succession in the Islamic kingdom, which they say is an attempt to avoid leadership disputes, which have erupted in the past.

Unlike many Western monarchies, the throne in Saudi Arabia does not pass automatically from a father to his eldest son. Neither is it decided by seniority, but by a small group of the most powerful Saudi royals.

Saudi Arabia last year announced plans to set up a so-called ''allegiance'' council which would regulate succession but would not take effect until Crown Prince Sultan, heir to King Abdullah, accedes to the thrown.

Last year's statement said that if the new council rejects a nominated crown prince, it may vote for one of three other princes the king nominates for the title.

Today's statute did not mention this but appears to ensure that power lies with the living sons of the kingdom's founder since there can be only one grandson on the council for each dead or incapacitated son of Abdul-Aziz bin Saud.

The statute, carried on the state-run SPA news agency, also allows two-thirds of the council to force out any prince who is deemed to be ''in transgression'' of the statutes, which say members should be at least 22 years old and have demonstrated ''probity and competence''.

The statute also talks of a ''medical committee'' but gives few details.

Within 10 days of becoming king, a new monarch must inform the committee of his choice for crown prince or ask the council to make its own nomination.

The Saud family set up Saudi Arabia in 1932 and dominates political life. The country has no elected parliament, rules by strict Islamic law that gives clerics wide powers, and bans political parties and street demonstrations.

The last succession from the late King Fahd to King Abdullah in 2005 was smooth, but there have been crises in the past.

Saudi Arabia's second king, Saud, was deposed in 1964 by his own family when he was deemed incompetent after a power struggle with his half-brother Faisal. Faisal, his successor, was shot dead by a nephew who was then declared officially as insane.

The new council will be ''reappointed'' every four years and the statutes can only be amended ''by royal decree after the consent of the allegiance institution'', SPA said.

The statute also says council decisions should be approved by the king but it is not clear what happens if the king opposes committee votes.

King Abdullah, an octogenarian, oversees a country with a growing population of 24 million, including 7 million foreigners, struggling to steer a course between tradition and modernity.

REUTERS PD BD1734

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