The lessons of the Saudi reshuffle
The long-awaited, million-dollar question has been answered: Saudi Minister of Interior Prince Mohammed bin Nayef will be the first of the third generation of Saudi royals to one day rule the oil-rich kingdom.
That is not all, his cousin the Minister of Defence Mohammed bin Salman, who is now the deputy crown prince, will likely be his successor.
This clarity in the Saudi succession came to light April 29th when Saudi King Salman made an unexpected large government reshuffle that saw the promotion of many young Saudi officials, including members of the royal family, to more senior positions.
A few of the old guard, including Crown Prince Muqrin, were let go. According to Saudi media, Muqrin asked the king to relieve him of his post. The godfather of Saudi diplomacy, Prince Saud al-Faisal, stepped down after 40 years in his post in favour of Saudi ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir, the first non-royal to hold the portfolio.
In short, Salman made very serious and bold moves in the shakeup. He set in motion a succession process, injected new blood into the ageing Saudi government and made governance more inclusive by appointing non-royalty to the top jobs.
This will likely increase public confidence in Saudi Arabia and remove doubts and speculation that overshadowed the kingdom for the past two decades about whether the succession challenges will cause divisions within the royal family or undermine national stability. The few remaining second-generation royals appear to have willingly passed on the torch to the third generation without any fuss.
It is worth noting that the recent changes took place while Saudi Arabia is leading Arab efforts to halt the spread of Iranian influence in the region through the export of the Islamic Revolution to Arab Shia communities. Saudi Arabia is spearheading an air campaign by an Arab alliance against the Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. It also occurred at a time Riyadh is engaged in a war or fundamentalist terrorist groups the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
Selecting as his crown prince the man who has been leading the war on terrorism for many years must not be seen as a mere coincidence. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef has gained the confidence of his people as well as world leaders who see him as an accomplished security leader with good diplomatic skills. He is also known to have good relations with the religious establishment, a quality that enabled him to be even tougher with radical groups.
As for the new deputy crown prince, he broke to fame with the launch of Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthis on March 26th. He has since become a familiar face to the public for his close association with the Arab military campaign to stop what is widely perceived to be an Iranian incursion into Yemen via their Houthi allies.
So the newly selected crown prince and his deputy are both well experienced and seasoned officials who have the potential to confront future challenges facing the kingdom.
However, it is still too early to tell how the world powers and international markets will react to the big changes in Riyadh. More importantly, how will the adversaries of Saudi Arabia like Iran, the Syrian regime and extremist groups react to this development? Both Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman are considered hawkish leaders with a willingness to use force as much as diplomacy in dealing with Iranian or terrorist threats.
Equally important is Jubeir taking on the post of foreign minister. His knowledge of the US system and Washington’s inner circles will likely gain him a good standing with current and future American leaders. This will possibly serve Saudi Arabia well at a time it is trying to slow down the move by the current US administration to sign a nuclear deal with Iran, which could open the way to the normalisation of ties with Tehran. Saudi Arabia wants to ensure that no agreement with Tehran will be at the expense of Arab interests in general and Arab Gulf States’ sovereignty in particular.
King Salman has proven to be a bold leader with a plan. His swift changes to the system and assertiveness in confronting threats has impressed many people inside and outside the country. He has set Saudi Arabia on a new track with many challenges ahead. It is now up to the new young leaders to prove his choices were right.