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Oil kings: The House of Saud's uncertain future

• http://blogs.reuters.com-Mohamad Bazzi

The message might have been more effective had the 90 year-old king delivered it personally, but Abdullah has been hospitalized since Dec. 31 for pneumonia.

Instead, Crown Prince Salman delivered the speech on the king's behalf. That image — of an aging heir with his own health troubles standing in for a nonagenarian king — did little to address concerns about whether Abdullah is still fit to lead. Larger questions over the line of succession in one of the world's most important oil producers remain unanswered.

The 79-year-old Salman, a half brother of the king and his designated successor, has taken on a larger public role in recent months, standing in for Abdullah at a summit meeting of Persian Gulf leaders in Qatar last month. But Salman himself is in poor health, and reportedly suffers from dementia. If Abdullah dies or is incapacitated, and Salman ascends to the throne, he might not be king for long. It's also unclear who Salman would designate as his crown prince — and that crucial decision could destabilize the royal family.

Prince Muqrin, 69, who has served as head of Saudi intelligence and in other senior positions, was installed last year by Abdullah into the newly created post of deputy crown prince, making him second-in-line to the throne. But any new king has the right to choose his own crown prince. If Muqrin is passed over by Salman, that could set off a succession battle within the House of Saud at a time of regional crisis and instability in the global oil markets.

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