Shakeup in Saudi Arabia

Is change coming to the Kingdom, or merely the impression of change?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The reshuffle of top ministerial and security posts announced on Thursday by the Saudi monarch, King Salman Bin-Abdelaziz, was noteworthy both in its substance and timing. It raises many questions about the true purpose of the move, and about the steps that may follow it affecting the throne and the succession.

Outwardly, the most prominent change was the sacking of Adel al-Jubeir as foreign minister and his replacement by Ibrahim al-Assaf – the former finance minister and onetime inmate of the Ritz Carlton Hotel on corruption charges. Also striking was the removal of the controversial figure Turki Al ash-Sheikh from his job as head of the General Sports Authority and his transfer to the General Entertainment Authority.

But more important than these, in our view, were the changes made in the security hierarchy: the appointment of Prince Abdallah Bin-Bandar as minister for the National Guard, Musaid al-Ubayyan as National Security Advisor, and Khaled al-Harbi as chief of National Security.

Also significant was the removal of Prince Muhammad Bin-Nawwaf from his post as ambassador to the United Kingdom. This may have been due to his close ties to Prince Ahmad Bin-Abdelaziz, who refused to pledge allegiance to Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman as crown prince and was tipped by some members of the ruling family as an alternative heir apparent: given that he is a direct descendant of the kingdom’s founder, has long experience of government, and belongs to the powerful Sudairi branch of the ruling family. He was present when Prince Ahmad urged a group of Yemeni demonstrators in London to blame the king and crown prince, and not the House of Saud as a whole, for the Yemen war.

It was notable that Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman retained all his official posts: Crown Prince, Minister of Defence, Deputy Prime Minister, Chairman of the Security and Political Affairs Council, and head of the Economic Affairs Council. In other words, he controls all public appointments, senior or secondary, in all positions whether political or economic, military or security, or religious or secular.

The Saudi monarch hoped to achieve a number of goals from these changes, which follow the restructuring of the intelligence apparatus and the announcement of the biggest annual budget in Saudi Arabia’s history – totalling one trillion riyals with a deficit amounting to $35 billion.

First, to try to change or correct the Kingdom’s image and its rulers’ reputation, after the damage caused by the assassination and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi – which revealed gross incompetence and inexperience both in carrying out the act and managing the political and security fallout.

Secondly, to convey the impression that key members of Muhammad Bin-Salman’s inner circle have been demoted: such as Adel al-Jubeir, who was chosen as foreign minister by Bin-Salman in 2015, or Turki Al ash-Sheikh, whose policies and statements as head of sports – especially regarding Egypt’s al-Ahli football club and his vote against Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup – caused crises with both countries on both the official and popular levels. We speak of an ‘impression’ because the fact is that both officials were merely ‘recycled’: kept in the forefront but given new titles.

Third, to adopt a new foreign policy based on calming crises: reconciling with Syria and its allies; a more balanced attitude to Lebanon’s political and sectarian components; improving relations with Jordan and Iraq; preparing for a gradual retreat from the Yemen crisis; perhaps forging new alliances against Qatar and Turkey; and opening up channels of dialogue with Iraq and Iran. Assaf, an experienced veteran public servant who worked with three kings, was chosen to fulfil these tasks.

There are two schools of thought—or, rather, two lines of speculation — about the next steps that could follow these changes in the coming months:

One point of view holds that they may be a prelude to replacing the crown prince with another figure who could regain the confidence of the American establishment, especially the Senate which unanimously accused him of responsibility for the murder of Khashoggi and voted to end all assistance to Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war.

The other viewpoint maintains that Muhammad Bin-Salman, who as de facto ruler must have ordered most if not all these personnel changes, is paving the way for the removal of his father from power, under the pretext of illness, and his own accession to the throne – thus presenting the ruling family, and his critics at home and abroad, with a fait accompli.

It is hard to guess which possibility is more plausible, but the second – that Muhammad Bin-Salman is poised to become monarch — should not be ruled out. Recently leaked reports indicate that the king’s health is deteriorating, that the crown prince is adhering to his position and threatening to resist to the death any attempt to unseat him or diminish his powers, and that he faces no real internal threat, until now at least.

The latest political personnel changes are superficial and of no great importance But the security appointments are significant, especially the change in leadership of the National Guard – the parallel army that could potentially champion the late King Abdallah’s wing of the ruling family and his sons and their allies. The same can be said about the appointment of a new National Security Advisor and the restructuring of the General Intelligence Department by a committee headed by the Crown Prince. These are the most important moves, affirming the consolidation of his hold on power and the blocking of all potential obstacles to his de facto rule and his ambitions to ascend to the throne.

We should expect more surprises from Saudi Arabia. It is no longer the ‘kingdom of silence’ as it used to be described.  Its crown prince is a risk-taker, who according to many of his critics, does not hesitate to take dangerous and reckless decisions.

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