Concerns over succession and the distribution of key government positions in Saudi Arabia are rising after the death of Crown Prince Sultan and with the octogenarian ruler King Abdullah recovering from medical treatment.
King Abdullah was absent for three months late in 2010 while he underwent treatment for a herniated disc that caused blood to accumulate around his spine. He had surgery in New York and convalesced in Morocco, leaving his brother Crown Prince Sultan in charge.
However, Prince Sultan, who had been abroad for health treatment for much of the last two years, died on Saturday and Abdullah had another back operation last week.
Interior Minister Prince Nayef is now seen as the most likely candidate to replace Sultan as crown prince after being appointed second deputy prime minister in 2009 -- a title usually given to the prince who is third-in-line to rule.
In order to make the succession process more straightforward King Abdullah has formed an "allegiance council" of sons and grandsons of the kingdom's founder to vote on future kings and their heirs.
However, it is not certain that he will choose to submit his nominee for crown prince to the body for election instead of simply appointing somebody by decree.
Here are key players of the ruling al-Saud family:
* PRINCE NAYEF - Prince Nayef has been interior minister since 1975. He was promoted to second deputy prime minister in 2009 and has since played a more prominent role in public life. Nayef, in his late 70s, chaired cabinet sessions while King Abdullah was on holiday and analysts say he will become crown prince. One of six full-brothers of Sultan, he is seen as a hard-liner who might not press Abdullah's reforms.
* PRINCE SALMAN - The governor of Riyadh since 1962, Salman and his family own a newspaper group including pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat and al-Eqtisadiah. Prince Salman, born in 1936, underwent spine surgery in the United States in August 2010 and remained outside the kingdom for recuperation. Another full brother of Sultan, he resumed his duties as governor in November 2010.
* PRINCE MUGRIN - The head of Saudi intelligence, Mugrin's public profile has risen in recent years. He organized a conference on combating Internet militancy in 2007. Diplomats say he is close to King Abdullah. Born in 1945, he is relatively young but is hindered in succession by his non-royal mother.
* PRINCE MISHAAL - Born in 1926, he was appointed by King Abdullah as chairman of the allegiance council but his public profile is low.
-- So far no grandsons of Saudi founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud have assumed the throne. Here are some of the most prominent:
* PRINCE MOHAMMED BIN NAYEF - Son of Interior Minister Prince Nayef who heads Saudi Arabia's anti-terror campaign and is deputy minister of interior. Diplomats say he has won plaudits from Western intelligence agencies for his work combating an al Qaeda campaign to destabilize the kingdom from 2003 to 2006. He survived an assassination attempt in 2009 by a suicide bomber posing as a repentant militant -- an incident that drew favorable attention in Saudi media.
* PRINCE KHALED BIN SULTAN - Son of the late Crown Prince Sultan, he led Arab forces during the 1991 war to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait. He is deputy defense minister and owner of the influential pan-Arab daily newspaper al-Hayat. He led Saudi forces in their war against Yemeni rebels who strayed into Saudi territory in 2009.
* PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL - Entrepreneur businessman and one of the world's richest men, he is the largest individual investor in Citigroup Inc.. His father's history as a renegade reformer prince who allied with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1960s could hinder his chances of promotion. Islamists also see his pan-Arab entertainment television network Rotana as immoral.
* PRINCE KHALED AL-FAISAL - Governor of Mecca province, he is seen as one of the most liberal princes who has eased the religious police's influence in the port city of Jeddah. He is owner of al-Watan newspaper, the country's most liberal daily. A keen poet, his liberal leanings could disqualify him as far as the hardline Wahhabi clerics are concerned.
* PRINCE TURKI AL-FAISAL - Born around 1945 and son of King Faisal, he has served as Saudi intelligence chief and as ambassador in London and Washington before retiring in 2006. He is the brother of veteran foreign minister Saud al-Faisal.
* PRINCE MITEB - The son of King Abdullah. In November 2010, his father handed him full control of the National Guard, an elite Bedouin corps that handles domestic security.
* PRINCE BANDAR - Born in 1950, this son of the late Crown Prince, was a famed ambassador to Washington between 1983 and 2005. He is currently Secretary General of the Saudi National Security Council but is thought to have fallen out of favor with Abdullah and other princes over overzealous diplomatic efforts in recent years.