Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Prince Salman delivering remarks to members of the press before a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 2012
Michael Reynolds—EPA
By Dan Stewart
January 23, 2015

King Salman is now ruler of Saudi Arabia after his elder half-brother, King Abdullah, died early Friday at age 90.

Salman bin Abdulaziz, who was named crown prince in June 2012, was Abdullah’s third heir to the throne after two elder brothers died in late 2011 and mid-2012. As the new King of Saudi Arabia, home to 28 million people, he will also serve as Prime Minister and Defense Minister.

A longtime governor of the capital, Riyadh, Salman has a reputation as a progressive and practical prince similar in bearing to his late brother. The transition is expected to be a smooth one, with little instability and no long-term policy changes. But the 79-year-old has reportedly been in poor health in recent years, and is perhaps unlikely to rule for as long as his elder sibling.

Unlike European monarchies that are handed down by generations, the Saudi throne has passed between the sons of King Abdulaziz, who founded modern-day Saudi Arabia in 1932. His sons Saud, Faisal, Khalid and Fahd each became king in the 20th century; Abdullah took the throne when Fahd died in 2005.

King Salman’s crown prince will be his younger brother Prince Muqrin, the youngest surviving son of King Abdulaziz, who was named deputy crown prince last year when the kingdom acted to set in stone its structure for the future. Muqrin is said, like the new King, to be committed to cautious reforms.

It was decreed by the King in 2006 that when the last of Abdulaziz’s sons passes away, a new King will be chosen from among his grandsons by a council of senior Saudi princes. Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the son of a crown prince who died, is considered a leading contender after being appointed Interior Minister in 2012.

But the kingdom has never transitioned from one generation to another, and no one quite knows what will happen when it does.

Read next: King Abdullah’s ‘Special Relationship’ With the U.S.

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