ABC News' Lara Setrakian reports:
Middle East analysts watch Saudi Arabia much as Kremlinologists once studied the power plays of the Soviet Union -- looking for signs of who's moving up and who's keeping in the good graces of the top man. Perhaps justifiably, since the Saudi Kingdom, a U.S. ally with the world's largest proven oil reserves, might be on the verge of a royal succession essential to America's strategic interests.
With the reigning King Abdullah well into his 80s and his named successor, Crown Prince Sultan, seriously ill, the wide field of outcomes invites speculation.
When King Abdullah tapped one contender, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, for a serious promotion last Friday, it was taken as the first major signal of whose hands would rule the kingdom next. The country's interior minister for more than thirty years, Prince Nayef was named second deputy prime minister - one notch below the ailing Crown Prince Sultan.
"This places him in direct line to the throne," wrote Ted Karasik of INEGMA, a think tank based in Dubai that is tracking the Saudi succession.
"Prince Nayef has been helping oversee the government since Crown Prince Sultan had his relapse five months ago," Karasik wrote. "This appointment makes his supervisory role official."
Prince Nayef's ascension is not automatic -- he needs the support of the 35-member Allegiance Council, the body of royals meant to choose the future king through consensus. But King Abdullah's vote of nconfidence carries weight, and says a lot about where he sees the kingdom going.
Prince Nayef, like all Saudi rulers of modern time, is a son of the country's founder, King Abdulziz ibn Saud. There was talk of the next king coming from the next generation, young blood from among the dozens of grandsons of Abdulaziz. That generational jump now seems unlikely, says Karasik.
Prince Nayef is a traditionalist, close to the Wahhabi establishment and controversial for some of his positions -- among them on on statement that Jews and Zionists were behind 9/11. He has a mixed record on rights for women and the kingdom's Shiite minority. His strong suits, on the other hand, include being credited with keeping stability and fighting al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.
"Despite being a controversial figure, Prince Nayef is nonetheless credited with the improvement of security conditions in the kingdom, and no one disputes his effort in the field of counterterrorism," wrote Rochdi A. Younsi, Middle East & Africa Director for the Eurasia Group. Younsi sees a tribal-political battle ahead before the naming of a future king.
"Only ultraconservatives would welcome [Prince Nayef's] candidacy to the throne. He has repeatedly reassured the powerful Wahhabi establishment whenever it felt threatened by King Abdullah's push for social change."
Even after Friday's promotion, interested parties are waiting to see how high Prince Nayef can go.