Less than four months into his reign, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman is consolidating power around the next generation of leaders as the world’s top oil exporter plays a more prominent role in the region’s power struggles.
The monarch elevated Muhammad Bin Nayef to crown prince after Prince Muqrin, the king’s brother, asked to step down, the royal court said on Wednesday. Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Salman’s son and current defense minister, was named as deputy crown prince and therefore second in line to the throne.
“The new king has proved consistent in his determination to elevate members of his close family to key positions,” said Crispin Hawes, managing director of research firm Teneo Intelligence in London. “The elevation of the king’s own son reinforces his rapid rise to become one of the two or three most powerful men in the kingdom.”
The changes come as Saudi Arabia’s new leadership heads a bombing campaign against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen and adopts a tougher stance on confronting Islamic State extremists. The appointments put power in the hands of a younger generation of princes who will have to prevent instability from spilling across the country’s borders as they develop new policies to manage the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
The decision to promote Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will surprise some given his youth -- he is thought to be in his 30s -- and relative inexperience, said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc. in Virginia.
“Few seem to know that much about him and he rarely speaks in public,” said Nazer, who worked at the Saudi embassy in Washington. “That will likely change going forward.”
Saudi Arabia’s benchmark Tadawul All Share Index rose 1 percent in Riyadh. Brent crude was up 0.8 percent to $65.19 a barrel before U.S. government data forecast to show crude stockpiles expanded further from a record.
King Salman has made substantial changes to the government since ascending to the throne in January. He set up new committees to oversee security, political affairs and economic development, removed senior princes from their positions and changed the governors in provinces.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman “is more than capable and qualified to take on heavy responsibilities” that are required by his new role, the royal court said. This is “evident to everyone through his work and his fulfillment of all the tasks he was entrusted with,” it said.
His appointment was supported by the majority of the allegiance council, according to the decree. King Salman called for pledges of allegiance to be made to the crown prince and the deputy crown prince on Wednesday in Riyadh, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.
“The speed with which he’s appointing people is astonishing,” Toby Matthiesen, research fellow at University of Cambridge and author of “The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism,’’ said. “Not necessarily all the changes are that surprising but it seems these decisions are made in almost total secrecy and announced in the middle of the night.”
The Royal Decree announcing the latest changes was released after 4 a.m. in Riyadh.
Diplomats in Riyadh had speculated how much further the king’s son would rise after being made defense minister, head of the royal court and the economic affairs council.
“King Salman is creating an impetus for the younger generation to be involved in the state of affairs,” said John Sfakianakis, the Riyadh-based director of the Middle East at U.K. investment manager Ashmore Group Plc. “There was a lot criticism about Saudi Arabia appointing only octogenarians in senior positions. Now the grandsons of the founder of the country are in the number two and three slots.”
King Salman also replaced Prince Saud al-Faisal, one of the world’s longest-serving foreign ministers, with Adel Al-Jubeir, who is the country’s ambassador to the U.S. He also appointed Adel Faqih as economy minister. Hamad al-Suwailim was named as new head of the royal court.
Al-Jubeir’s appointment “implicitly suggests a desire to have a key voice in Washington,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Al-Jubeir has “an understanding of how Washington works that few in the kingdom can match,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the U.S., the guarantor of the kingdom’s security since the 1940s, has been strained after recent tension in the Middle East. The countries argued over the 2011 Arab Spring protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, how to respond to the civil war in Syria and the wisdom of a nuclear deal with Iran.
As the new generation of princes rose to power, Saudi Arabia abandoned a tradition of cautious cash-backed diplomacy with an activist policy. The kingdom started using its armed forces last month to defend its perceived interests in Yemen against Iran, and has built a predominately Sunni-Muslim coalition to support its efforts.
In addition, it’s clamped down on Islamic State militants with a series of arrests within the kingdom.
The appointments “could serve as an indication of a new Saudi strategy for Syria and Yemen,” Ibrahim Sharqieh Frehat, a conflict resolution professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, said by e-mail. “Escalation, whether in Yemen or Syria, could be a main feature of the kingdom’s new regional strategy.”