Saturday, May 2, 2015
In an unprecedented major move, Saudi King Salman has reshuffled the deck at the apex of the Kingdom’s power structure. The reshuffle has replaced Prince Muqrin, chosen as Crown Prince by the late King Abdullah before his death in January, with Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, and appointed his young son, Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman as the Deputy Crown Prince, or second in line of succession. Both men are relatively younger than the past octogenarian successors to the Kingdom’s founder King Abdulaziz al-Saud, comprising the generation of his (many) sons. That tradition gave Saudi Arabia five kings from amongst al-Saud’s sons. This reshuffle represents the transition to a new generation. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the new Crown Prince, is the first grandson of founder King al-Saud. Given that Nayef is 55 and Mohammed bin Salman is just 30, the announcement appears to have settled the succession issue for decades to come.
Not only that, power at the apex of the Saudi hierarchy now appears to be concentrated in the hands of the two Princes under King Salman. Their rise to power is seen to signal a tougher stance on foreign policy and continuing to keep the lid on domestic dissent. Prince Nayef has been Interior Minister since 2012, succeeding his father in that position. Al Qaeda paid him the ultimate compliment as a formidable enemy when they tried to assassinate him in 2009 when he was security chief. He escaped that attack and is seen as tough on internal dissent or attempts to subvert Saudi rule. Saudi Arabia clearly has an eye on the unprecedented turmoil roiling the region, with external challenges such as the intervention in Yemen and internal issues emanating from religious extremists’ attempts to overthrow Saudi rule in the past.
The latest avatar of such extremists, Islamic State (IS), is said to be operating on Saudi soil. Recently, Riyadh announced it arrested 93 people suspected of being IS operatives. The tougher foreign policy of course is centred on the perceived growing Iranian influence in the region. In the Yemen context, the refusal of Pakistan to get involved militarily in the Saudi campaign, which has caused so much heartburn in Riyadh as well as other Gulf Cooperation Council allies, has now been translated into Pakistan offering humanitarian assistance for Yemen. Whether this will get Islamabad off the hook with Riyadh, only time will tell.
Apart from these two changes at the top, veteran Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has been sidelined in favour of Saudi ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir, the first non-royal to hold the post. Even the head of the state oil firm Aramco has been shifted to Health Minister. His successor is awaited with bated breath by the oil markets, given Saudi Arabia’s pre-eminent position as the world’s largest oil exporter.
All these changes presage a more confrontational foreign policy, with Yemen as the testing ground of the new direction. Prince Mohammed bin Salman has led the aerial foray into Yemen against the Houthis but seems to have come up against the fact that mere air power cannot defeat the rebels. After Pakistan excusing itself, Saudi Arabia is now training tribesmen to fight the Houthis in a new proxy ground war that could escalate the conflict, possibly even over the border into Saudi Arabia itself.
The new Saudi assertiveness may also be a ploy to divert attention from domestic tensions emanating not only from the extremist threat, but also the inherent contradiction between conservatives and modern young people who are dying for change. Unemployment amongst even the educated young is high and could become a destabilising factor in future. The transition may have settled the Saudi succession for the foreseeable future in an effort to ensure stability and smooth changes, but the concentration of power in the apex triumvirate and the more aggressive policeman’s role being assumed by Riyadh in the region is a risky enterprise fraught with many imponderables that will only reveal themselves in the fullness of time.