Rarely is change a way to bolster the status quo rather than to alter it. But this is precisely what happened last week when Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz decreed a sweeping government reshuffle affecting key ministries, the Political and Security Affairs Council headed by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, and the National Guard, which is one of the country’s most important security institutions.
Some hours before the 33rd Janadriya Culture and Heritage Festival was due to round up its activities, I along with other participants at that event in Riyadh, learned that our host, the head of the National Guard who had sent us our invitations to the festival, had been replaced by the crown prince’s cousin, Prince Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdul-Aziz. Adel Al-Jubeir, who had been prominent in recent news on Saudi Arabia, was demoted from foreign minister to minister of state for foreign affairs while Ibrahim Al-Assaf, formerly the finance minister, was appointed minister of foreign affairs.
Al-Assaf had been among the Saudi princes and entrepreneurs who had been put under house arrest in the Ritz Carlton in November 2017 and who was rumoured to have been released without having to pay the penalties that were exacted from the other detainees.
The overhaul also affected the ministries of interior, justice, education, health, culture and the Ministry of Shura Council Affairs. But perhaps the most significant change was the reintroduction of the post of national security adviser, which is now occupied by Minister of State Musaad bin Mohamed Al-Aiban, a Harvard graduate.
Although some of the names of those dismissed or appointed by the royal decrees came as a surprise, the government overhaul did not. It had been expected for some time since the Khashoggi murder because of the pressure Riyadh was coming under to bring those responsible to account and to take other required measures.
Observers, who have been closely following events in the kingdom, read most everything from this perspective. For example, when Prince Ahmed bin Abdul-Aziz, the king’s younger brother (from a different mother), returned to Saudi Arabia from London, where he had been living for many years, word quickly spread that he would be appointed crown prince, replacing Mohamed bin Salman. Nothing of the sort occurred. Far from penalising the current crown prince, last week’s royal decrees strengthened his power in the state.
Without delving into the details of King Salman’s recent decrees, what is certain is that, intentionally or not, they convey a clear message: Saudi Arabia is the master of its own will. The decrees do not reflect, even remotely, the thrust of international pressures and, above all, the pressures from across the Atlantic in the US Congress.
As I read last week’s changes, after dismissing the officials directly responsible for the Khashoggi assassination and initiating the relevant criminal procedures, Riyadh decided to close the subject and proceed with the implementation of the new policies spearheaded by Crown Prince Bin Salman. As for public opinion in Saudi Arabia’s allies, that is another question.
Saudi Arabia’s actions are clearly informed by the firm conviction that the Khashoggi case was politicised for ulterior motives that have nothing to do with the defence of the freedom of expression or human rights.
An influential Saudi figure whom I had the opportunity to interview while here in Riyadh related a joke that went around at the time of the US-British invasion of Iraq: “After a summit between US president George Bush Jr and British prime minister Tony Blair, the two heads-of-state held a joint press conference in which they announced that they had taken the decision to kill 20 million Arabs and one dentist.
The journalists homed in on the dentist. Who was he? Why is he being targeted? Not one journalist asked about the 20 million Arabs and the sin they committed in order to deserve that fate.”
My interlocutor continued, “you know and I know and the whole world knows that thousands of people around the world have been and continue to be subjected to what Khashoggi suffered, whether in the torture chambers in Guantanamo or Abu Gharib, or in police departments in some Third World countries. So why all this fuss about a single dentist? Why not defend the 20 million Arabs?”
He stressed that certain governments that are now casting themselves as defenders of the freedom of expression and the press are the worst abusers of the right to free expression and among the world’s top jailers of journalists and political opponents.
He added: “What happened in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was a heinous crime that needs to be investigated. Saudi Arabia has taken the necessary measures towards this end. However, Saudi policy is governed by a strategic vision for reform and progress. Nothing in that strategy will be vulnerable to pressures motivated by hidden political ends.”
Whether we like it or not, this is the perspective of Riyadh and it explains why the recent changes were contrary to what many had expected.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A very Saudi reshuffle