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Salman makes changes in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s new king has moved swiftly, putting new faces in power and retiring older ones. Ali Naimi remains oil minister, but his future is less clear

The Saudi leadership’s transition to the next generation of princes – grandsons of Ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom – came sooner than expected and with less fuss than many had anticipated. Far from being a stop-gap head of state, King Salman is clearly determined to put his own stamp on the monarchy. This means in large measure creating a more youthful-looking and streamlined state apparatus.

The daily al-Riyadh newspaper, which tends to reflect court thinking, pointed out in a recent editorial that many of the younger princes are “well qualified, knowledgeable about the world at large, and well versed in contemporary cultures, languages and techniques”. It was time, the paper said, that they and young people from the private sector who were unsullied by the old bureaucratic and backward styles of government came to the fore.

This is indeed happening. Interior minister Muhammed bin Naif is the new deputy crown prince, while Muhammed bin Salman has taken over as defence minister as well as becoming chief of the royal court. With Prince Mitaib bin Abdullah still in his post as commander of the National Guard and a member of cabinet, the three establishments that are vital for the security and stability of Saudi Arabia are now in the hands of the next generation.

Along with making the new appointments King Salman lost no time in cutting the long list of advisory bodies that have tended to complicate rather than facilitate the government’s decision-making process. Eleven have been scrapped, including the Supreme Economic Council and the Supreme Petroleum Council. The functions of these will be incorporated into a newly established Council for Economic Affairs, chaired by Prince Muhammed bin Salman.

Under the microscope

This last appointment is one indication that Salman, through his young son, wants to keep a closer eye on energy policy than his predecessor did. Another is the elevation of another of his sons, deputy petroleum minister Prince Abdulaziz, to the rank of full minister. These moves beg the question, of course, of how petroleum minister Ali Naimi fits into the new arrangements for managing the country’s energy sector. While predictions on matters like this are unwise, the current trend of putting younger hands on the tiller makes it almost inevitable that Naimi will soon be replaced – but whether that happens during a period of low global oil prices or after a recovery is a matter for conjecture.

Until the recent slew of ministerial changes the betting was that Saudi Aramco chief executive Khalid al-Falih would become the next oil minister. But Prince Abdulaziz’s appointment to the cabinet puts matters in a different light. The prince, who has led the campaign to conserve domestic energy use and conducted Saudi oil diplomacy abroad, is said to be keen on the job.

But his appointment would be a break from the tradition that this key post is held by someone outside the royal family. While Naimi has consistently tried, at least publicly, to distance oil policy from regional and international geopolitics, the prince’s appointment would likely introduce an element of overt strategic thinking into energy-related decisions – especially with his half-brother chairing the new Council for Economic Affairs. Aside from Naimi, the only other senior cabinet member still in his post is foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. His continued tenure is a sign that Saudi Arabia’s regional and international outlook will remain largely the same under Salman. But the new monarch, in public pronouncements in the past, has sounded less insistent than King Abdullah on the need to remove the Assad regime in order to achieve peace in Syria. Saudi Arabia will continue to be part of the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition in Iraq, without committing troops there. As for relations with Iran, little change is likely, with Salman as concerned as the late king that Tehran is seeking to expand Shia influence in Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour, Yemen.

Within the kingdom the focus on promoting young and qualified Saudis with modern professional ideas is unlikely to be matched by a relaxing of the restraints on political activity. The limited reforms introduced by King Abdullah will remain in place, but further progress down this path should not be expected. It is significant that key figures in the kingdom’s religious establishment were particularly enthusiastic in their response to Salman acceding to the throne.

Overall, Saudi Arabia’s focus will be on consolidation in the face of external threats emanating from the IS surge in Syria and Iraq and from sympathy for the jihadist cause felt by young Saudis in the kingdom. The existence of these potential threats will give added weight to the argument against introducing controversial political or social change, and against domestic economic reforms of energy subsidies. The new king’s decision to increase wages and benefits to millions of Saudis is proof of this.

The king is also likely to cite the possible dangers facing Saudi Arabia if princes from other branches of the ruling family complain at being short-changed in the recent round of appointments. King Salman has clearly indicated that this is the moment for the Sudeiri princes to make their comeback – through the promotion of his own sons and the appointment of Prince Muhammed bin Naif as deputy crown prince. This, he might argue, is the prerogative of the monarch courageous enough to open the leadership door to the third generation of princes for the first time – a move that most believed would be put off for as long as possible. 

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