At the witching hour of 4.a.m April 29, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz issued a decree that tossed out the House of Saud’s most hallowed traditions of royal succession. He sacked Crown Prince Muqrin and elevated Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, to Crown Prince in his stead, and anointed his youngest son, Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, second in line to the throne.
These changes rounded off a reshuffle of the top princes of the kingdom in which King Salman has been deeply engaged since he succeeded Abdullah last January. These steps have rolled back his predecessor’s choices and policies and inserted his own – including carving out places in the sun for his own scions.
DEBKA Weekly’s Saudi expert notes that Saudi Arabia is now ruled for the first time in its history by a triumvirate composed of the monarch, now approaching his 80th year, the new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 58, and the king’s thirty-something son, Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman.
The king contributes his political experience to this partnership; the two Princes Mohammed, youth and a fresh outlook.
The shakeup is well on the way to advancing the third generation of princes of the House of Saudi into high office of government for the first time, and breaking with the system of passing the crown among Ibn Saud’s sons in an increasingly geriatric progression.
Third Saudi generation moves in, along with non-royals
In keeping with this policy, not only was Muqrin removed, but Abdullah’s son, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah downgraded in status, although he remains at his post as the head of the National Guard. But the reigning king’s son, Defense Minister Mohammed, is on a poaching expedition for adherents among the National Guard’s top ranks for his plan for a merger with the national army.
Abdullah’s other sons were summarily swept out of their posts as provincial governors, overriding seniority and kinship ties in favor of younger and competent talent. It was also meant to show Washington that the new ruler was taking the advice of US officials by introducing a young generation of princes into power.
He replaced ailing Prince Saud al-Faisal, a fixture as Saudi Foreign Minister since 1975, replacing him with Ambassador to the US, Abdel al-Jubeir, the first non-royal to hold the post.
Saud will retain cabinet rank. But his brother, Khaled al-Faisal, has lost the education portfolion awarded him by King Abdullah just a year ago. A capable administrator, he was sent back to his former job as Governor of Mecca – one of the three most important provinces in the realm.
King’s son groomed as next oil chief, only female official dropped
Ambassador Jubeir is not the only non-royal appointment to the Salman cabinet. A former military man Khaled bin Ali al-Humaidan is the new head of General Intelligence, a post invariably occupied hitherto by a prince.
The swarm of administration commissions have been annulled and replaced by two royal panels: The security committee and the economic and social affairs committee, to be chaired respectively by the crown prince and the defense minister.
The appointment of Khalid Al-Falih as Minister of Health and chairman of the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. is of great interest when deciphered. Our Saudi experts explain that he has in fact been demoted. Formerly Director General and President of Saudi Aramco, and second only to Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi, Al-Falih must now be satisfied with the junior rank of chairman. This step is seen as paving the way for the early advance of another of the king’s sons, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, from deputy minister of oil, to minister, in place of the incumbent after 30 years of service.
Another key appointment made by the reform-minded Abdullah has been reversed. Norah al-Faiz’s appointment to deputy education minister – and the most senior female official in the kingdom – symbolized the late king’s drive for liberal reform and female education. Her dismissal curtails this process in deference to the religious establishment’s adamant objections to promoting women’s rights.
Muslim Brotherhood is rehabilitated
It is also a strong pointer to the new king’s religious tendency toward the conservative.
And indeed, one of his first steps was to sack the justice minister and head of the religious police and replace them with figures representing the religious faction close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Abdullah outlawed and persecuted. Under the new king, its adherents are beginning to trickle back into the kingdom.
This policy reversal has important ramifications for the kingdom’s foreign policy. It paves the way for burying the hatchet with Turkey and Qatar, champions of the Brotherhood, with whom King Abdullah fell out. There will be repercussions on Saudi relations with Egypt, which continues to persecute the Brethren, with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas – an offshoot of the Brotherhood, with the Obama administration and possibly with Iran.
The sweeping changes he has instituted during barely four months on the throne totally refute the rumor put about in Washington last year that Salman suffers from dementia and can’t remember what he says five minutes later. His impetus and scale of activity since ascending the throne are breathtaking: He holds several meetings every day with foreign leaders and officials, chairs weekly cabinet meetings, and in between these activities has performed three government reshuffles, ordered the Saud Air Force into action against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, while closely conferring with coalition partners and responding to international reactions. Even with the most able advisers at his side, this level of activity is hardly typical of a senile ruler.