April 30, 2015

Royal Reshuffle: Saudi Shakeup Consolidates King’s Power

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman attends a ceremony at the Diwan royal palace in Riyadh on January 24. (YOAN VALAT/AFP/Getty Images)

King Salman’s recent shakeup of the highest levels of government in Saudi Arabia has several clear and important themes. First, the new king is moving to further establish his authority and make an early mark on the administration of the kingdom through personnel and, indeed, policy changes. Moreover, he is ensuring that his own immediate relatives and branch of the royal family are firmly empowered. Second, the king’s new appointments reflect a continued focus on, and development of, Saudi Arabia’s security concerns as the highest priority of government policy. And, third, and not least, almost all of the new appointments bode well for the United States and for U.S.-Saudi relations.

Salman has named his nephew, the country’s Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as the new crown prince, replacing Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz. He has also appointed his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is reportedly in his early 30s, deputy crown prince. And, also highly significantly, the long-serving Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal – who reportedly asked to be relieved of his post due to health problems – has been replaced by Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir. Some of the other Cabinet changes are harder to interpret, but these three major appointments each convey clear signals to the Saudi public and the world at large.

Salman’s shakeup ensures that the most important government posts in Saudi Arabia are now occupied by either his own Sudairi wing of the royal family or by non-royals who are more easily controlled or overruled than would likely be possible with other royals. This branch of the family was established by one of the wives of King Abdulaziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, a scion of the prominent Al Sudairi clan of Najd, the same part of the Arabian Peninsula that the Al Sauds are from, had seven sons with King Abdulaziz. Among them is the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. These brothers collectively became known as the “Sudairi Seven,” and along with their sons and close relatives they constitute what traditionally has been, and currently is now, a very powerful wing of the royal family.

The promotion of Prince Mohammed bin Salman to deputy crown prince is one of the most dramatic moves by the new king to establish not only his own authority, but that of his nuclear family, on Saudi royal dynamics. Mohammed bin Salman is now effectively second in line for succession, at least in theory and to all appearances. The next generation of Saudi royals is now positioned to come to power in the foreseeable future and in an orderly manner. Mohammed bin Salman has been unequivocally placed at the forefront of this next generation of leadership in Saudi Arabia.

He had already been promoted at a strikingly young age to the post of defense minister shortly after the accession of his father to the throne. From that position, Mohammed bin Salman has been heavily involved in, and identified with, the Saudi-led intervention against Houthi rebels in Yemen and a series of other moves designed to enhance the Saudi posture in the region such as plans to create a joint Arab League military force. He is therefore a symbol of, as well as a key player in, the new policies of more proactive and assertive Saudi leadership. His elevation to, in effect, the role of crown-prince-in-waiting strongly indicates that this new, more robust defense and security posture is being consolidated and can be expected to continue and quite possibly expand.

The elevation of Mohammed bin Nayef sends a similar message on the Saudi approach to national security. As the former Saudi counter-terrorism chief, he is widely credited with having led the fight against al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. He will reportedly retain his position as interior minister, meaning that he will retain command over the most effective and competent of the Saudi security and armed forces. He was educated in the United States and is well-regarded in Washington, where he is seen as a very pragmatic and strategic thinker.

His accession to the role of crown prince also marks a significant generational change, although not one as dramatic as that of Mohammed bin Salman. At 55, Mohammed bin Nayef, should he become king as he is now poised to do, would be the first Saudi monarch who is a grandson, rather than a son, of Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch, King Abdulaziz, or Ibn Saud. Mohammed bin Nayef is noted for maintaining strong relations with most political factions in Saudi Arabia, including conservatives, while presiding over strong anti-extremist and anti-terrorism policies as counter-terrorism chief and interior minister. He was the subject of an attempted assassination by al-Qaeda in 2009 as a consequence of his crackdown on violent radicals, and several other attempts on his life by Islamist extremists.

These two key appointments, however, may lead to some tension between the new crown prince and deputy crown prince. Despite his youth, Mohammed bin Salman is reputed to have been ambitious for advancement within the Saudi system for some time. And while the deputy crown prince is young, the crown prince himself can also look forward to a long time as monarch, since he is only 55. Ambition, if it remains strong in the younger prince, may therefore be tempered by the need for a considerable period as the anointed successor. On the other hand, the new crown prince has been a key player on a number of policy fronts – for example, Yemen – that are now much more in the domain of the new deputy crown prince. This again raises the prospect for some competition, or even tension, between the second and third highest-ranking figures in the Saudi government.

Finally, the promotion of Adel al-Jubeir to the post of foreign minister further solidifies the national security and U.S.-oriented aspects of the new Saudi shakeup. He is only the second non-royal to serve as foreign minister, after representing the kingdom in Washington since 2007.* Among other things, Jubeir’s non-royal status suggests a further consolidation of power by King Salman, as he will not have the same degree of influence or independence of action on foreign affairs as did Faisal, or likely would any royal family member. In future policy disputes, it is likely that Foreign Minister Jubeir could be fairly easily overruled by the king, or even the crown prince or deputy crown prince.

Jubeir is noted as a strong proponent of the intervention in Yemen and other aspects of the more assertive approach to Saudi national security initiated by Salman. But even more, his promotion reflects a clear desire on the part of Riyadh to have at the helm of its diplomatic corps someone who is highly qualified to present Saudi policies and perspectives to an American audience. Jubeir was educated in the United States and spent most of his diplomatic career dealing closely with Americans in one capacity or another. He is well-liked and respected in Washington and has been a frequent and effective spokesman for Saudi Arabia on U.S. television and other media. He was allegedly the target of a plot by Iranian agents to assassinate him by bombing a restaurant in Washington in 2011.

Jubeir can therefore communicate Saudi views to Western, particularly U.S., officials in a manner that to many will be familiar and, hence, reassuring, even when views may diverge. Even more than the other changes, his new role suggests a strong desire to communicate effectively with the United States, and that relations with Washington are being given a new emphasis in Saudi national security and diplomatic strategy.

At a time of stress in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and in the run-up to the Camp David U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council summit in May, this emphasis is welcome indeed and should prompt serious reflection in U.S. policy circles. The changes at the top in Saudi Arabia also came on the same day that Saudi security reported that it arrested some 93 suspects who were allegedly planning to bomb the U.S. Embassy on behalf of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Little else is known about the alleged conspiracy.

The timing of the announcement, however, could be linked to a broader effort to send a clear message to Washington and the rest of the world: Saudi Arabia is more proactive in its own defense, both at home and regionally, than ever before, but that it values its allies, especially the United States, and will defend their interests as well. The threat of terrorism is one of the clearest and most important of the common interests shared between the two countries. But there are other shared concerns, including containing Iranian hegemony; ensuring the freedom of shipping in the Gulf and other key regional waterways; managing the petroleum and other energy markets; and ensuring Middle Eastern regional stability and security, which involves preventing new conflicts from erupting and finding political solutions to existing ones.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance is decades old and time-tested. It arises from these concrete, irreducible shared interests that have not changed for decades and are highly unlikely to for the foreseeable future. Saudi Arabia and the United States have needed each other in the past and they will certainly need each other, for the self-same reasons, in the future.

This does not mean that there are not real differences or disputes that need to be resolved. There are valid U.S. concerns about intolerant discourse among Saudi clerics and others, support for extremism by private citizens, women’s and other human rights issues, and more. Saudi Arabia joins others in the Arab world in wondering about the U.S. commitment to its regional allies, concern about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran, and dissatisfaction with U.S. policies toward Israel and the Palestinians that have failed to resolve the conflict.

Nonetheless, the Saudi-U.S. relationship remains vital to both states, and to the stability and security of the Middle East in general and the Gulf region in particular. That the recent changes in the Saudi government seem to be sending, loudly and clearly, very positive messages on regional security, the fight against extremism, and the importance that Saudi Arabia places on its relationship with the United States can only be a welcome development. While Washington cannot precisely reciprocate these gestures, the United States should receive these messages warmly and, in its own interests, provide Saudi Arabia with appropriate – and timely – reassurances.

* An earlier version of this essay suggested that Adel al-Jubeir is the first non-royal to serve as foreign minister. In fact, Ibrahim bin Abdullah Al Suwaiyel, another Saudi non-royal, briefly served as foreign minister from 1960 to 1962.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is also columnist at NOW and The National (UAE), as well as a monthly contributing writer to the International New York Times. He tweets @Ibishblog.