RIYADH (Reuters) - The appearance of a young Saudi prince, a grandson of the king, in a television commercial may have raised eyebrows in his country, but it shows Saudi Arabia's royal family is slowly changing.
Prince Abdullah bin Meteb's lead role in an advert for Saudi Arabia's second-biggest mobile phone operator Etihad Etisalat
(Mobily), has sparked a debate among diplomats and Saudis alike on what it could mean for the absolute monarchy, which has always been secretive about its internal affairs.
"Why is a Saudi prince on a television commercial? And why did it have to be the grandson of the king and not someone else?" one Riyadh-based Western diplomat mused.
The advert starring Prince Abdullah, a professional rider, and his sponsorship deal with Mobily, exposes discreet changes that have been affecting the Saudi royal family in recent years as it becomes ever larger and younger, said a Saudi analyst who is familiar with some royals.
There are several thousand Saudi princes, all descendants of the kingdom's founder King Abdulaziz, who died in 1953.
"They are getting closer to the public. The number of young princes eclipses the number of patriarchs in the Saudi monarchy which is getting more bourgeois in its lifestyle," the analyst said.
"Whether through their involvement in business life or in philanthropy, royalty is becoming part of the Saudi elite."
King Abdullah has repeatedly stated his commitment to modernizing the world's largest oil exporter with political and economic reforms, but the closest the aging monarch has come to reforming the monarchy itself was the inception in 2006 of a royal council to appoint future crown princes and kings.
Most Saudi princes get stipends from the state budget, although when he was crown prince, King Abdullah sought to have these reduced.
Many princes end up taking senior positions either in the government or in the army, while many others are businessmen.
"Passion for success drives us to take the lead, and we are like that at Mobily," a voice in the commercial says to a shot of Prince Abdullah taking care of his horse. The prince and his horse then jump a fence that appears to be on fire.
Humoud al-Ghobaini, Mobily's vice president for corporate communications, said the company had offered to sponsor the prince as he was a "successful equestrian sportsman," but had not expected him to accept the proposal.
"This is the first time a Saudi prince appears in a television commercial. We did not sponsor him and do the commercial because he is a prince. We have sponsored soccer clubs, several sports federations and even schools before we approached His Royal Highness Prince Abdullah," Ghobaini said.
Ghobaini declined to discussed details of the sponsorship deal, and Prince Abdullah could not be reached for comment.
Mobily, affiliated to Emirates Telecommunications, competes against state-controlled Saudi Telecom Co and Zain Saudi Arabia.
Editing by Dominic Evans