Eyes on Saudi succession after king hospitalized

The Saudi stock market fell after King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was hospitalized Wednesday, but any succession for the throne would likely be smooth for the country.

The Saudi royal family announced in March that 79-year-old Crown Prince Salman would succeed the king, and experts said those plans have eased most concerns about an impending transition. In fact, Saudi watchers told CNBC that the country's oil, domestic and geopolitical policies should remain virtually unchanged when Salman takes over.

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud

"This is very predictable," Bilal Saab, senior fellow for Middle East security at the Atlantic Council, said of the transition. Still, he reflected, "the markets just react in unpredictable ways."

Although King Abdullah has been perceived as a champion of domestic reform, his departure would not signal the reversal of any of his (relatively) progressive policies, Saab said.

Salman, who has assumed many state duties while currently serving as deputy prime minister and minister of defense, is relatively well-liked by regional neighbors and in Washington, according to Karen Elliott House, author of "On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future."

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Given that the transition of duties has partially begun, experts said that there would likely be little political drama when Salman takes the throne. Still, the issue of his successor could prove a contentious moment for the perpetually stable kingdom.

The royal family officially announced in March that Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the youngest surviving half brother of the king and Salman, would be given the role of deputy crown prince—in effect naming him the successor to Salman.

House said that could provide a moment of tension for the royal family: A successor has traditionally been picked by an ascending king, and some family members were reportedly less than pleased about Muqrin's appointment.

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Still, those concerns pale in comparison to the current succession worries in Oman, Saab said. That country's sultan, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, has no formal successor plan, and political chaos after his death could be problematic for the region, he said.

"This is someone who has a much more influential role, not just in his country, but in the region with the Iranians," Saab said. "The concerns over succession are much more pronounced in Oman than in Saudi Arabia"