Saudi Balancing Act Abandoned as King Imposes Rapid Change

Updated on
Prince Mohammed Bin Salman
Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has been appointed deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia. He is second in line to the throne, the royal court said on Wednesday. Photographer: Hassan Ammar/AP Photo

King Salman has abandoned the balancing act by which predecessors tried to keep the Al Saud family’s various branches in harmony, and opted for rapid change that’s already ruffling some royal feathers.

In less than four months, the king has overhauled his cabinet, removed princes from government roles, merged ministries and realigned the succession. On Wednesday he appointed his son Mohammed bin Salman as second in line to the throne while Muhammad bin Nayef, the king’s nephew, was made crown prince, marking a shift in power to a younger generation.

“The changes amount to a comprehensive shakeup of the senior leadership of Saudi Arabia,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Houston, said by e-mail. It’s “a major statement of intent from King Salman about the acceleration of the transition.”

Change in the conservative Gulf monarchy, the world’s biggest oil exporter, has typically involved inching forward. Salman spent almost five decades as the governor of Riyadh before he became king in January. Now his son, Prince Mohammed, has gone from being a little-known defense official to the third-most-powerful man in the kingdom in the space of months.

His authority grew on Friday, when he was named chairman of the 10-member supreme board of state oil firm Saudi Aramco, according to a statement on the company’s website. The Supreme Petroleum Council, which previously set oil policy and was led by the king, will be dissolved, according to the statement.

Traditional Role

The traditional Saudi role in regional politics -- cautious diplomacy backed by oil wealth -- is undergoing a shift too under Salman’s leadership. Saudi Arabia has joined the U.S. campaign against Islamic State in Syria and is involved in a war of its own in Yemen, leading a coalition of mostly Sunni nations in airstrikes against Shiite rebels it says are guided by Iran.

In earlier reshuffles after he ascended to the throne in January, Salman removed the heads of the national security council and intelligence services, Bandar bin Sultan and his son Khalid bin Bandar. He also changed the governors of Riyadh, Mecca and the central province of Qassim.

The death of several senior princes since 2011 has opened the way for Salman to reshape the family on his own terms. Nayef, father of the new crown prince, died in 2012 and his brother Sultan a year earlier.

‘Big Question’

“When the older generation started to die, we expected to see major changes,” said Crispin Hawes, managing director of research firm Teneo Intelligence in London. “The details of the outcome are surprising, but the situation was always going to change. Salman is trying to make changes in a concentrated period of time.”

In a country where the number of princes runs into thousands, it’s hard to keep everyone happy.

The “big question” is how the rise of some royals goes down “with their brothers and cousins,” Gregory Gause, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University, said by e-mail.

There were some early signs of opposition. Six of the 34 members of the allegiance council, the body created by Salman’s predecessor Abdullah to manage the succession, withheld support from Mohammed bin Salman’s promotion, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television said, citing an official it didn’t identify.

Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, a half-brother of King Salman and father of the global investor Alwaleed bin Talal, said on Twitter that he rejected what he called the “improvised decisions,” and said they violated Saudi laws. He called for an urgent meeting of royals to discuss the moves.

Sudairi Seven

Those losing positions in the latest overhaul included Prince Muqrin, who had been heir to the throne until this week, and was said to have stepped down of his own volition. Muqrin, along with Bandar, voted in support of the changes on the allegiance council, Arabiya said.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, one of the world’s longest-serving foreign ministers, had asked to step down for health reasons, according to official media. He was replaced by Adel Al-Jubeir, the country’s ambassador to the U.S.

“The fact that a non-family member gets a major ministry like Foreign Affairs must also raise questions among that generation of the family,” Gause said.

King Salman is one of the influential brothers known as the Sudairi Seven, the sons of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud, and one of his wives, Hassa bint-Ahmed al-Sudairi. Others include Prince Nayef, the father of the current crown prince.

‘Very Unusual’

King Salman seems “determined” to keep future power in “the hands of descendants of the Sudairi Seven,” said Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University. “Muqrin was pushed out because if he became king, there would be no telling what reshuffling he might do that would disadvantage the Sudairi group.”

Prince Saud was probably nudged aside to limit the influence of the next-most potent group of family members, the sons of King Faisal, Pillar said. “His sons Saud and former intelligence chief Prince Turki are among the most able and experienced of their generation of the royal family -- certainly more so than the much younger Mohammed bin Salman,” he said.

The king’s son, who’s believed to be in his early 30s, gained a law degree from King Saud University and ran his father’s court when he was defense minister. The royal court said on Wednesday that he’s “more than capable and qualified to take on heavy responsibilities” in his new role.

“From half a year ago, when he had no senior position, to now the third most powerful person in the country,” Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge and author of “The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism,” said by phone. “That’s very unusual for Saudi, because they move very slow and gradual.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE