Out of the blue the king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has made a number of unexpected changes in his government, by forcing quite a few ministers and former successors to the throne to step down. Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud has been deposed as “second to the king” or Crown Prince, while Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz that headed the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1975 faced dismissal. In this major overhaul of the Saudi government, the key decision is without a doubt, the appointment of the king’s nephew Muhammad bin Nayef, who previously served as Minister of Interior, to his current position as Crown Prince. The nephew is known as an ardent fighter against domestic terrorism and a close friend of Washington. Meanwhile the position of Deputy Crown Prince is now occupied by the former Defense Minister and king’s son Mohammed bin Salman. It is reported that Prince Mukrin,the king’s half-brother, according to the royal court, “demanded to be relieved of the position of Crown Prince.”
It is clear that the ruler of Saudi Arabia is desperate to consolidate all power in the hands of the third generation of the royal family. He wants to bring some fresh blood to the top ranks, while retaining some experienced players that were serving his predecessor. Given the youth and relative political inexperience of the new appointee Mohammed bin Salman, he may cause the ruling part of the Al Saud family some serious troubles in the future. It is possible that that the decision “to shake things up” was influenced by a relatively unsuccessful military operation against Yemen, which has become the reason for massive protests in the KSA, along with a series of terrorist attacks.
The resignation of Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who was replaced by Adel al-Jubeir who was previously serving as Saudi Arabia ambassador to the United States for years, was among the most decisive steps taken by Saudi Arabia’s king. It looks like the public accusations against Vladimir Putin’s representative at the Arab League summit in late March along with verbal insults aimed at the sitting Egyptian president were too risky a step to take for Saud bin Faisal. After his remarks the former Foreign Minister was summoned to face a royal “disciplinary” hearing. It seems that the Saudi king understands that in the current situation in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, while the issue of Iran’s nuclear program is still being addressed, the diplomatic role of Russia is too important to make a sworn enemy out of Moscow.
After coming to power in January of this year, King Salman has already been purging the ruling echelons of Saudi politics, but he decided to stay away from changing the top figures in it then. Almost immediately after his accession to the throne he issued more than a hundred decrees that caught most Saudis off guard. They grew accustomed that in the old days such acts were carried out slowly once a monarch dies, taking weeks or even months. But Salman changed 11 ministers overnight, along with replacing the Chief of Intelligence and National Security Council, while the governor of Mecca and Riyadh were sent packing right off the bat. He disbanded a number of industry committees and departments, replacing them all with two new committees for politics and security, economic and development affairs. It was evident from the very first changes, that the main criterion for a possible promotion to important government positions, as before, was personal loyalty to the new ruler, while professional and moral qualities of those candidates were deemed unimportant.
When the old king died Saudi elites craved to prove that this death does not mark the beginning of a new war for power between Saudi princes, however a new phase of rigid competition for power within the Al Saud clan was quick to follow. The rivalry is between two powerful parties: one of Muhammad bin Nayef and one of the sons of the deceased ruler Abdullah bin Mutaib. Those are the representatives of the two opposing clans within the ruling dynasty. Muhammad bin Nayef who enjoyed the support of the United States had a solid chance taking the Saudi throne. Meanwhile Abdullah bin Mutaib was convinced that any balance of power within the ruling dynasty, which would block his chances to inherit the throne would lead to an imminent war between the clans. His supporters were expecting that the new king would die of disease soon so Mutaib would gain a chance to finally become the king.
This situation has also been affected by economic factors. Despite the fact that Saudi policymakers were considered one of the key factors in the recent sharp decline in prices of the oil markets, the Saudi economy suffered an enormous amount of economic damage from the price drop, therefore it became one of the main reasons for the failing economy of the Saudi state. Although Saudi Arabia has increased its oil production to the highest possible level in recent years, a sharp decline in oil prices caused Riyadh to suffer tens of billions of dollars in losses while the national economy has no means of compensating for this staggering deficit. Saudi officials have openly declared that they’re unable to find 38 billion dollars to draft a healthy budget. The country that already had a significant number of unemployed and those living in poverty was forced to throw even more people onto the streets. According to available statistical data, the middle class has been gradually disappearing in the KSA, while society is becoming further divided between rich and poor. The new king of Saudi Arabia is seriously concerned that his rise to power has coincided with the beginning of an economic crisis, thus his subjects would associate the decline in living standards with his leadership.
Saudi Arabia has also found itself affected by a wide range of regional and international problems. Despite all efforts by Saudi Arabia and the West to stop it, a peaceful revolution in Bahrain is progressing further, while local residents fail to find a comprehensive excuse for the ongoing limited occupation of this country. The Syrian war has now turned into a deadly trap for Saudi politicians, since they’ve given up their ambitions in this country, yet they find themselves unable to abandon it without losing face. Militant groups that were built up on Saudi money are losing ground all across the Middle East, from Iraq and Lebanon to Yemen, while the borders of the kingdom are approached by the radicals of the Islamic State. The heavy burden of the former king – the nuclear program of Iran – is now a headache King Salman has to face. Ultimately, Riyadh launched military aggression against Yemen on March 25 to limit Iranian influence in the region, but it failed to show any positive results.
Another problem inherited by King Salman is the difficult situation within the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, since member states except for the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reject the dictatorial tone of Riyadh. Another challenge is the deteriorating relationship with the United States, since Washington refuses to launch direct military aggression against Syria while carrying on negotiations regarding the Iranian nuclear issue.
In any scenario, the latest “clean up” in the government has made a number of powerful clans of the country angry. A powerful clan of a former influential politician in exile, Khaled al-Tuwaijri, has a lot of economic tools to make Salman suffer the consequences of his decisions. Troubles and only more troubles lay ahead of Saudi Arabia and its new king.
Alexander Orlov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.