RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's subtle change of energy policymaker line-up since the accession of new King Salman in late January appears to give the monarch's inner circle a firmer hand on the kingdom's oil strategy than previous rulers have enjoyed.
The most notable change was the promotion of the king's son Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, long a member of the No. 1 crude exporter's OPEC delegation, to the role of deputy oil minister from assistant oil minister, a post he had held for many years.
On the same day, King Salman formed a new body replacing the Supreme Petroleum Council and appointed another son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to head the new Supreme Council for Economic Development. There are no indications that those moves will lead to changes in the fundamental way the kingdom makes its oil decisions or diminish the influence of veteran oil minister Ali al-Naimi.
However, the king is clearly laying the ground for a generational shift in how Riyadh develops its energy and economic strategies. "This would ensure that, whether it is a domestic policy through Prince Mohammed and the economic council or international oil policy through Prince Abdulaziz, it is still very closely guided by the king himself," said Sadad al-Husseini, a former senior executive at state oil giant Saudi Aramco and now an energy consultant.
WHO'S NEXT IN LINE?
There is little merit in speculating about when Naimi, who turns 80 in August, will retire or whom Salman will choose to replace him. Conventional thinking is that the ruling Al Saud family views the oil minister's job as so important that giving it to a prince might upset the dynasty's delicate balance of power and risk making oil policy hostage to princely politicking.
has had only four oil ministers since 1960, and none of them has been a royal. The most prominent minister before Naimi was Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who held the position from 1962 to 1986. But since Abdulaziz's promotion, some diplomatic and Saudi sources have suggested the prince's lengthy experience in the sector might overcome what has always been seen as the impossibility of appointing a royal to the post of oil minister.
Abdulaziz, who is in his mid-50s, was appointed "deputy minister of petroleum and mineral resources at the rank of minister", according to a royal decree on Jan. 29.
"This has increased speculation about whether this would mean Abdulaziz might be the next oil minister," a diplomatic source said. "Before the promotion, the thinking was that it was probably a 90 percent chance for Falih and 10 percent for Abdulaziz," the source said, referring to Aramco head Khalid al-Falih.
"Now the dialogue has shifted." Whatever Salman has in mind for Abdulaziz, however, it seems clear that his son will remain a core component of the kingdom's energy team, along with other key players such as Falih.
Since his appointment as chief executive of the oil company in 2009, Falih has been regarded as one of a handful of Saudi figures whose views are closely watched by traders and analysts for any insight on the kingdom's oil thinking. Naimi took the reins at the oil ministry after a long career at Aramco, pointing towards a path by which the ruling family keeps highly experienced technical experts involved in wider energy strategy.
HOW THINGS WORK
The exact mechanics of Saudi decision-making have always been obscure, but there is a broad understanding that the king has the final say in a process that involves building consensus among top royals based on the advice of senior technocrats.
When it comes to oil, under the late King Abdullah that process involved the Supreme Petroleum Council, which included the crown prince, the foreign, interior and finance ministers, Naimi and Aramco's chief. But in one of his first acts as monarch, Salman abolished that body and set up the Supreme Council for Economic Development to take over its duties, as well as those of another committee that focused on economic reforms.
The move was seen as an effort by the king to streamline policy-making by binning redundant committees that often included the same officials and replicated each other's work. The new council has 22 minister members, including Naimi.
Saudi oil policy -- especially when it comes to relations with the rest of the 12-member Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, production and exports -- is ultimately decided by the king, market observers say.
But such decisions are based mainly on recommendations and consultations with the Ministry of Petroleum, top royals, senior advisers and technocrats at other related ministries such as finance and foreign affairs. "Whenever the policy changes, it is not simply top down. This is still the result of studies and recommendations prepared by the Ministry of Petroleum and only becomes a national policy when they are reviewed and approved by the king," Husseini, the consultant, said.
Analysts and industry sources say the new council is likely to be more involved in setting domestic energy policies rather than anything that affects the global oil market, which has seen the price of Brent crude
drop almost 50 percent since June. It is too soon to tell what sort of influence Prince Mohammed will wield over the council, or how far he will defer to the advice of Naimi and his eventual successors.
However, by making royal court chief and defence minister Prince Mohammed, his 35-year-old son, the new economic council's chairman, King Salman has given a relatively unknown official a big voice in crafting Saudi oil policy.
"He is a young minister and has the full trust of the king. He has also proven to be a pragmatic business leader. But being the head of the new council does not eliminate the role of the 22 minister members," said Mohammad Al Sabban, a former senior adviser to Naimi. The decisions of the new economic council "will most likely be adopted by consensus", he added.
OPEC heavyweight Saudi Arabia has held steady since the Jan. 23 death of Abdullah with its strategy of allowing the market to correct itself without cutting output despite a steep price drop, drawing public criticism from some other oil producers.
Demonstrating such continuity has long been important to the absolute monarchy at moments of change, something Salman underscored by keeping Naimi, despite a wide-ranging reshuffle. Naimi was the driving force behind OPEC's November decision not to cut output and instead fight for market share.
On Feb. 25, Naimi said oil demand is growing and markets are calm, indicating that he feels vindicated. "There will be no change in the Saudi oil policy. I am glad that finally Saudi Arabiaproved to everyone that whatever (decision) was taken in November along with other OPEC members was right," said Sabban.