Three months after ascending to the Saudi throne, King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz is making bold moves that will have a profound impact on the direction that the Kingdom takes in the coming years, setting the stage for the next two rulers of the Gulf country to be grandsons of founder Ibn Saud. Ironically, the two princes that are now in line to succeed King Salman share the same name, meaning that one day a King Mohammed could potentially succeed a King Mohammed.
In addition to significantly altering the leadership landscape for the coming decades, the new Saudi monarch also shook up his cabinet, including ending the 40-year career of the Gulf nation’s Foreign Minister and naming a new Health Minister, who curiously also becomes the new chairman of the board of state oil giant Saudi Aramco.
For the traditionally conservative Saudi Arabia, the move to the next-generation of leaders within the Al-Saud family has been a source of much debate within the Kingdom as well as among Gulf watchers for the last decade or more, as those aging sons of Ibn Saud in the succession line began to die. King Salman appears to be continuing to consolidate his power and formally moving to ensure that one of his sons is now directly in line for assuming the throne one day.
In January, upon King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz’s passing, King Salman immediately dealt with the question of when the next generation of Al-Saud princes would appear in the line of succession. In following with the established succession put in place by his predecessor, on January 23rd King Salman named his half-brother, 69-year-old Prince Muqrin, the youngest surviving son of Ibn Saud, as his Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister. But he also appointed his nephew, 55-year-old Interior Minister Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, as Deputy Crown Prince and Second Deputy Prime Minister, not only setting the stage for a return of the Sudairi clan to the throne but also making Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef the first grandson of the Kingdom’s founder to be officially placed in the line of succession. At the same time, King Salman elevated his 34-year-old son, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, as the Kingdom’s new Defense Minister, the job the new King himself had held since 2012.
In several surprise decrees issued early today, April 29th, King Salman abruptly removed Crown Prince Muqrin, appointing Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef as his new Crown Prince and the Deputy Prime Minister, and naming his son, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as Deputy Crown Prince and Second Deputy Prime Minister.
When King Salman had immediately named Prince Muqrin as Crown Prince upon taking the throne in January, it was seen as the monarch maintaining the status quo for those conservatives within the Kingdom fearing change and assuring the domestic population and the world of a smooth succession, by honoring the wishes of his late half-brother as well as the ruling echelon within the Al-Saud clan.
Crown Prince Muqrin was clearly King Abdullah’s man. Crown Prince Muqrin did not have a support network of full brothers to establish a power base and he hadn’t reportedly particularly distinguished himself when he served as Saudi Intelligence Minister from 2005 to 2012.
What is clear is that the new Crown Prince and Deputy Crown Prince have enhanced their statures quickly and strengthened their individual power bases, appearing for now to be in agreement on dividing leadership in key areas. In addition to his new titles and responsibilities, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef will continue as Interior Minister and chairman of the Political and Security Affairs Council, while Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will continue to oversee the Defense portfolio while also chairing the Economic and Development Affairs Council.
As Interior Minister since 2012, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef has taken a hard line on combatting internal threats from Islamist radicals, notably al-Qaeda and more recently attacks believed to be instigated or supported by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The new Crown Prince became Assistant Interior Minister in 1999 and forcefully moved against Islamic militants within the Kingdom after September 11, 2001 while surviving an assassination attempt by an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber in 2009. He has become the public face in the Kingdom and abroad of overseeing domestic counterterrorism policy, responding swiftly to internal attacks and thwarting potential threats.
Just yesterday, on April 28th, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced that in arresting 93 people in the last several months that were linked to ISIS, it had prevented several terrorist attacks from occurring within the Kingdom, including a planned suicide car bombing plot to strike the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, as well as threats to residential compounds, prisons and security forces. Perhaps most worrying to the Saudi leadership should be that of the 93 individuals that were arrested, 65 of them were Saudi nationals.
In November 2014, following an attack on a Shi’ite shrine in the town of Dalwah in the al-Ahsa region of the Eastern Province that killed seven Saudis, raids across the Kingdom resulted in the arrests of 77 people in a terrorist cell believed to be responsible for the attack. The Interior Ministry subsequently announced that ISIS had ordered the attack in Dalwah and that the cell’s leader as well as three others in the group had direct links to ISIS.
As for the young Defense Minister, the relatively untested Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has seen his profile prominently raised since March 26th, when a Saudi- led coalition began its airstrikes and shipping blockade against the Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, in what is in effect a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran over Saudi Arabia’s perception of Iran’s power moves and rising Shi’ite influence in the region.
The Saudi Defense Ministry announced on April 21st that the coalition had ended Operation Decisive Storm because its goals had been reached and was moving into a second phase, Operation Restore Hope, the goal of which is to find a political solution to the crisis in Yemen. However, on April 28th, coalition jets bombed the runway at Sana’a airport as a means to prevent an Iranian aircraft from landing and effectively making the runway unusable for scheduled aid flights, a coalition spokesman stated, claiming that the plane had not coordinated with the coalition and refused to turn back when it ignored a warning.
In the most significant of the several cabinet changes and other appointments he made through his royal decrees early on April 29th, King Salman let go the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, replacing him with Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubair. The decree announcing the departure of Prince Saud, who was appointed Saudi Foreign Minister by King Khaled in March 1975, cited that the 75-year-old prince “had asked to be relieved from his duties due to his health condition.” King Salman has retained Prince Saud on the Saudi cabinet by naming him a Minister of State and adviser on foreign affairs. Al-Jubair has served as Saudi ambassador to Washington for the past eight years and from 2000 to 2005 had been foreign affairs advisor to then Crown Prince Abdullah before serving as advisor to King Abdullah from 2005 to 2007. He will be the first non-royal to oversee the Saudi foreign ministry.
In what is causing a lot of head scratching and reading of tea leaves today, Saudi trackers are attempting to make sense of King Salman’s appointment of Saudi Aramco CEO and President Khalid Al-Falih as the new Health Minister as well as the chairman of the state oil firm. This means that Al-Falih takes over the chairmanship of Saudi Aramco from long-serving Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi. Both the positioning of Al-Falih on the cabinet and overseeing the board of the state oil firm suggests that he is next in line to replace Naimi. Traditionally the Oil Minister also serves as chairman of Saudi Aramco, so this is a bit of unchartered territory.
Al-Falih, who has worked at Saudi Aramco for his entire career that spans more than 30 years, has served as President and CEO since January 2009 and was appointed as a member of the Saudi Aramco board in 2004. Nothing in his professional background shows involvement or experience in medical or health-related issues.
It well could be that the reasoning behind appointing him to the Health portfolio was to give him ministerial ranking and more public exposure domestically and allow him to give input at ministerial meetings on energy issues, paving the way for him to succeed Naimi. However, there are believed to be other potential candidates for the job of Oil Minister, including King Salman’s son, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Salman, who is currently Saudi Deputy Oil Minister.
Increasingly in recent years, there was expectation that King Abdullah was going to relieve his long-serving oil minister from his job, but Naimi has proven resilient, in large part due to his technical knowledge and great understanding of the oil markets. Certainly, when King Salman came to the throne in January of this year, most anticipated that he would be replaced, given that Naimi was perceived as specifically King Abdullah’s man. But, as the country was in the midst of sponsoring an oil price war with help from its Gulf OPEC allies against U.S. shale producers and fellow OPEC and non-OPEC producers, it appeared that the new monarch did not want to rock the boat by firing Naimi at that time.
There is speculation that Naimi may be replaced following the upcoming scheduled OPEC conference on June 5th in Vienna, or more likely, that he will remain in place until he has seen the price war run its course, however long that is to take.