Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and his brother Prince Salman arrive in Makkah to attend the funeral of Crown Prince Nayef. Image Credit: Reuters

Riyadh Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz has appointed Defence Minister Prince Salman as crown prince and heir apparent, ensuring a smooth succession at a time of tough challenges for the world’s biggest oil exporter.

The appointment, reported on state television, was announced in a royal decree one day after the burial of Crown Prince and Interior Minister Nayef, who died on Saturday.

Crown Prince Salman becomes Abdullah’s third heir after the deaths of two elder brothers in the past eight months. He has built a reputation for pragmatism and is seen as likely to continue the king’s cautious domestic reforms.

Prince Ahmad Bin Abdul Aziz, a younger brother of both Salman and Nayef, was named as the new interior minister after spending several decades as deputy interior minister.

The new crown prince will keep the defence portfolio and has been appointed deputy prime minister to King Abdullah, the royal decree said.

Salman, 76, a half-brother of the 89-year-old Abdullah, is likely to continue with cautious social and economic reforms as well as Saudi Arabia’s moderate oil pricing policy, analysts said before his appointment.

“Salman is popular in the royal family,” Khalid Al Dakhil, a professor of political science at King Saud University, said in a phone interview. “He has been a public figure since the 1960s and is close to the traditional line, which is strong within the government and royal family.”

Salman becomes crown prince as Saudi Arabia confronts turmoil in the Middle East and high unemployment at home. Unscathed by the popular uprisings in the Arab world that led to the toppling of leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, King Abdullah spent an additional 224 billion riyals ($60 billion) last year to create jobs, build homes and increase salaries for members of the armed forces.

King Abdullah and the royal family have moved to ensure a smooth political transition after the death of Nayef and Prince Sultan in October. Sultan was both defence minister and crown prince. Abdullah appointed Prince Salman as defence minister on November 5 after naming Nayef as the crown prince on October 28.

Salman served as governor of Riyadh from 1963 to 2011, according to the website of the Saudi Embassy in Washington. In that time, the capital grew from a city of about 150,000 people to about 5 million people, according to data on the website of the US Central Intelligence Agency.

“He turned a sleepy desert settlement into a metropolis, which as capitals around the world go stands up pretty well,” said Robert Lacey, a British author and historian who has written about the Saudi royal family.

In April, Salman traveled to Washington, his first official visit as minister, where he met with President Barack Obama and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. The meeting was part of continuing between the two countries on regional issues, the Saudi Embassy in Washington said on its website.

“Salman has a very good relationship with the US and the US military,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Since becoming defence minister, he has had a number of meetings with US political and military officials to help keep the US-Saudi military relationship healthy.”

His son, Sultan Bin Salman, flew into space as a payload specialist on the US shuttle Discovery in 1985. His son Faisal is the chairman of the Riyadh-based Saudi Research and Marketing Group. The group owns the London-based pan-Arab Asharq Al Awsat newspaper and the Jeddah-based Arab News English language paper.

Since taking on the role as defence minister, Salman has raised his public profile by visiting soldiers around the country. This year, Saudi forces have also announced military exercises around the country, including five-days of manoeuvres in the Eastern Province in February. The same month, Saudi forces held training exercises with Oman in the sultanate.

The ministry said it has prepared a plan to “rebuild and modernise” its armed forces as the kingdom confronts regional risks, the Saudi Press Agency reported in November.

In December, seven weeks after Salman was appointed defence minister, Saudi Arabia signed a contract with the US valued at $29.4 billion to sell F-15 fighters to the Gulf nation. The agreement includes 84 new aircraft and the modernisation of 70 existing aircraft.

“He had an instant impact on the defence ministry when he took over,” Lacey said.