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Saudi shakeup: Generational shift as kingdom tries to assert regional leadership

Alia Soliman , Friday 1 May 2015
April 16, 2015, images of Saudi King Salman, left, Crown Prince Muqrin, center, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, right, are displayed on a shop door in the al Aqeeliya market, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Photo: AP)

King Salman Abdel-Aziz’s announcement of a shakeup in the Saudi government has left many young Saudis feeling content with a move that marked a generational shift; however the importance of the shuffle lies in the timing of the move, which comes amid regional challenges.

On Wednesday, a royal decree named Interior Minister Mohamed bin Nayef, 55, heir to the throne, removing Crown Prince Moqren bin Abdel-Aziz bin Saud.

Bin Nayef is the grandson of King Abdel-Aziz, the founder of the kingdom, and the first of his grandsons to hold the title of heir to the throne. Bin Nayef is also a member of the same branch of the royal family as King Salman, the Sudairis.

A separate decree announced that King Salman's son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is believed to be in his early 30s, will be deputy crown prince.

In another major change, Saudi Arabia's envoy to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir, was appointed foreign minister; he replaced Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the world's longest-serving foreign minister.

The decree comes at a time when Saudi Arabia has been trying to assert their role as a regional leader. The kingdom has been leading a coalition against the Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as trying to re-strengthen its ties with the West.

Shifting regional dynamics

Fahad Nazer, a political analyst with JTG strategic consulting firm in the United States, believes that King Salman carried out the reshuffle last week because he wanted to inject some new blood into the cabinet while still retaining some more experienced veterans.

However, he explains that some people in Saudi Arabia were likely a little surprised by the decision due to the young age and relative inexperience of some of the new leaders.

Mohamed bin Salman, who was named deputy crown prince in the reshuffle, was appointed by his father to serve as defence minister following the ascension of Salman to the throne in January.

As head of the armed forces, bin Salman commanded the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen.

A Saudi-led coalition was established after Houthi rebels in Yemen, backed by Iran and supported by forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, captured the southern city of Aden in March, causing President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia.

Last week, the kingdom ended its month-long campaign against the Houthis, declaring it a success.

Nazer believes that much of bin Salman's legacy will likely be defined by how the Yemen campaign concludes.

“Salman is considered to be the face and perhaps even the mastermind of the Yemen operation by many. Yet he still remains a relative unknown. Few seem to know that much about him personally and he rarely speaks in public. I think that will likely change going forward,” he says. 

Andrew Hammond, a Middle East analyst and author of The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia, believes that it's possible that bin Nayef and his allies forced this shift upon King Salman in light of perceived mistakes in Yemen, which would be blamed on the inexperience of Salman's son Mohamed bin Salman.

However, Hammond states that it is not clear at this stage whether this is, in fact, what happened.

Reshuffle prompts criticism, praise

Tensions in the palace continued following the reshuffle. Saudi Prince Talal bin Abdel-Aziz expressed his rejection of the reshuffle on Thursday, based on the grounds that the move contradicts with principles of sharia and the systems of the state.

In a statement posted on his Twitter account, Prince Talal described the latest move as an “impulsive" decision. He called for a general meeting to discuss the issue, Manar news agency reported.

“I previously said, no obedience, no allegiance to those who broke the law,” Prince Talal wrote.

Young Saudis, however, have largely welcomed the move on Twitter and celebrated the younger age of the new appointees.

Given that the overwhelming majority of Saudis are under the age of 30, there appears to have been awareness that there was a significant generational gap between the senior leadership and the Saudi population at large.

Saudi activist Mohamed Al-Khawaja told Ahram Online that he was overjoyed by the decision; he believes that having a younger generation in top-level leadership will move things faster and reduce the bureaucracy of decision-making.

Al-Khawaja asserted that even though bin Salman is young, his participation in the Saudi-led operation in Yemen has well prepared him for this position.

“King Salman knows how to get things done; he took the right step in Yemen, and he did the same thing now with the shakeup,” Al-Khawaja said.

But Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, disagrees with Al-Khawaja. Al-Ahmed believes that the younger leaders are more "repressive" than their fathers.

“The generational shift was promoted by the Americans as a mean of long-term stability,” he said. 

Familiar faces in Washington

Bin Nayef, who is now next in line to the throne, is known internationally as “the counter-terrorism czar” and is said to be close to US counterterrorism officials.

Al-Ahmed told Ahram Online that the US was in part responsible for bin Nayef’s rise to power.

“He has a very close relationship with the CIA director John Brennan, who was CIA station chief in Riyadh,” he added.

Bin Nayef has been the real go-to contact for American officials, analysts say, supporting the US's fight against militant groups including Al Qaeda.

The incoming foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, is the current Saudi ambassador to the US and has a master’s degree from Georgetown University.

The Washington Post described Al-Jubeir as a diplomat spreading a message of friendship from Saudi Arabia in the US, especially after the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

"Jubeir has spent most of the past two decades working to strengthen bonds between the two nations," the Post said.

While bin Nayef and Al-Jubeir are familiar faces, King Salman’s elevation of his son bin Salman, who is little known in American circles, injects an unpredictable element into a relationship that has grown strained under the Obama administration.

US officials have said they expect no significant changes in the bilateral relationship.

For several years, analysts say, Saudi Arabia has been attempting to stop relying on the US to safeguard their security interests.

“I think the military campaign in Yemen demonstrates this new thinking in dramatic fashion, especially given that the US and wider international community seemed to have no interest in intervening militarily in that conflict,” Nazer concludes.

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