RIYADH // King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has appointed his son Prince Miteb commander of the Saudi national guard, the kingdom's second-largest military force, and made him a cabinet member with the rank of minister of state.
The move was not unexpected as the Sandhurst-trained prince, who is in his late 50s, has been a senior official with the force for some time. Nevertheless, it marks a significant turning point because King Abdullah has led the force for almost half a century.
Some observers see the step as part of the princely competition that inevitably accompanies the process of royal succession.
"It's pretty clear that the senior Al Saud players are continuing to consolidate the positions of their sons" as they look ahead to changes at the top among the kingdom's ageing leaders, said Neil Partrick, an associate fellow of London's Royal United Services Institute.
Mr Partrick noted that the sons of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz and Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz have taken on heightened responsibilities at the ministries of defence and interior respectively in recent years.
"The king is now doing the same thing," Mr Partrick said.
The official announcement of Prince Miteb's promotion, carried by the Saudi Press Agency late on Wednesday, also said that the national guard deputy commander, Prince Badr bin Abdul Aziz, was retiring for health reasons. He is the king's half-brother.
Prince Miteb now joins six other ministers of state within the Saudi cabinet, known as the Council of Ministers.
"This is something new, maybe because [the king] would like him to know the politics of government," said Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi army general and chairman of the Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah.
Mr Eshki added that as a graduate of the UK's Sandhurst military academy, Prince Miteb "is very qualified" to command the guard.
A tribal force, the guard grew out of the Ikhwan or White Army of King Abdul Aziz, the kingdom's founder. It has been responsible for protecting the royal family and vital facilities, as well as maintaining security inside the kingdom.
It also has long been seen as a counter-balance to the regular military forces (army and air force) of the ministry of defence, which has been headed by Crown Prince Sultan since 1962. King Abdullah was named commander of the national guard the same year.
Estimates of the guard's total strength vary widely, anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000. In 2002, Anthony H Cordesman, an expert on the Saudi military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote that "regardless of the exact numbers, it is clear that the guard is now far larger than it was at the time of the [1990-91] Gulf War, and that it has a full-time active strength approaching that of the Saudi Army."