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World New Saudi Crown Prince, 76, offers more of the same

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, right, and his brother Prince Salman arrive in Mecca to attend the funeral of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef June 17, 2012.

Saudi Press Agency/Handout/Reuters

He carries a stick to help him walk, his left side weakened by a stroke, and he is prone to memory lapses. But at 76 years old, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has been named Saudi Arabia's new Crown Prince, the embodiment of his country's hopes for the future.

But in many ways his appointment as heir to the throne is being viewed as a failure. Analysts say the Saudi royal family has neglected to transfer power to the next generation, highlighting a deeper crisis of governance unfolding within the kingdom. At a time when the Arab world is seized with revolution and threatened by conflict, Prince Salman's appointment after the sudden death of his brother, Prince Nayef, represents the reinforcement of calcified order that is immune to the gathering forces of change.

"Saudi Arabia claims to be the leader of the Arab World, but they have chosen to continue with tired and physically limited leadership. They are surrounded by problems and can't seem to get a grip on the issues. This is not a great way to deal with the challenges of the Arab Spring and the threat of a nuclear Iran," says Simon Henderson, a director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has written a book about the issue of succession in Saudi Arabia.

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Prince Salman's appointment hardly comes as a surprise. As Prince Nayef's health faltered, Prince Salman was already being groomed as his successor, criss-crossing the country to visit military units and flying to Britain, one of the kingdom's largest arms sellers. He was appointed defence minister in November, after serving for five decades as governor of Riyadh province. In many ways, he has been preparing himself for his new role since childhood. Growing up in the Governance Palace in Riyadh, Prince Salman would regularly accompany his father to meetings with other kings and heads of state.

He is considered to be slightly more liberal-minded than Prince Nayef, who led efforts to crackdown on jihadism but also strictly enforced Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi rule, backing the kingdom's notorious religious police who often use violence to enforce conservative laws.

The Arab Spring has inspired cracks of dissent within Saudi society and the ruling family has responded by promising $100-billion in jobs and handouts to quell any uprising. Still, with growing unemployment and nearly half the population under the age of 25, the kingdom is experiencing a profound shift that has yet to fully play out.

Against that backdrop, Prince Salman's appointment very much represents the status quo. He is likely to continue with limited social reform and maintain Saudi Arabia's moderate oil pricing policy. Western leaders reacted to his appointment with relief, seeing no sign that the new heir to the throne will jeopardize the kingdom's strategic alliances with them.

U.S. President Barack Obama issued a statement praising Prince Salman as "a man of deep faith who is committed to improving the lives of the people of Saudi Arabia and to the security of the region." Mr. Obama wrote, "The United States looks forward to continuing our strong relationship with Crown Prince Salman in his new capacity as we deepen the long-standing partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia."

Washington hasn't always been as impressed with Prince Salman. In the wake of the terror attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, for instance, Salman told the then U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia that the attacks had been a "Zionist plot."

Prince Salman was also the one who ordered Saudi troops into neighbouring Bahrain to crack down on protests there by the Shiite minority. On women's rights, he has demonstrated limited sympathy, showing leniency when dozens of women drove through the streets of Riyadh in 1990 to protest the kingdom's ban on females driving.

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But observers say these small nods at reform are nothing compared to the kind of change needed in the kingdom."It's exasperating at the moment because they have absolutely no sense of the extent of the crisis they are in. The House of Saud is not ready for change," said Mr. Henderson. Even if it were, there is no obvious reform-minded prince waiting in the wings.

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