Major shift in power as Saudi King resets succession
RIYADH - Saudi King Salman appointed a new heir and made his young son second in line to rule on Wednesday, a major shift in power within the ultra conservative kingdom's elite at a time of almost unprecedented regional turmoil.
By making Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, crown prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, 30, deputy crown prince, King Salman has effectively decided the line of succession for decades to come in the world's top oil exporter.
Almost all powers under the king are now concentrated in the hands of the pair, who each chair committees determining all security and economic development issues in Saudi Arabia, and have led Riyadh's month-old campaign of air strikes in Yemen.
In another big shift, Salman replaced veteran Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who had served in the role since October 1975, with the kingdom's Washington ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, the first non-royal to hold the post.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who replaces Prince Muqrin, the successor chosen by the late King Abdullah before his death in January, enjoys closer personal ties with U.S. officials than almost any other senior royal, diplomats have said.
The changes come as Saudi Arabia navigates the messy aftermath of the Arab spring and has departed from decades of backroom politics with its military intervention in Yemen.
The Yemen move, closely associated with both Prince Mohammeds, is seen by analysts as reflecting a more assertive approach to Saudi Arabia's foreign policy under Salman and his ruling team.
"I think we're going to see a more confrontational policy, faster decision-making and more long-term thinking. A leadership that won't hesitate from any confrontation," said Alani.
It follows what many Saudis see as a decade of growing Iranian influence across the Middle East and a steady disengagement by Riyadh's historical main strategic partner Washington.
Saudi Arabia also faces long-term domestic challenges, including entrenched youth unemployment, unsustainable state spending and tension between religious conservatives and more Western-oriented liberals.
OIL APPOINTMENTS The reshuffle also touched the oil sector, hugely sensitive to financial markets as the world's biggest petroleum exporting country holds the key to global supplies.
The chief executive of state oil firm Aramco, Khalid al-Falih, was appointed Health Minister, according to the text of the decree published on the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).
Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television also reported he had been named chairman of state oil company Saudi Aramco, a position hitherto held by veteran Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi, who remained in his ministerial post.
The decree as published on SPA did not mention the new role at Aramco, but oil traders said they were closely monitoring the situation to see if there would be a new Aramco CEO and whether oil minister Naimi's position would be affected.
Naimi, who is 79 years old and has been oil minister since 1995, was seen as crucial in Saudi Arabia's decision last November not to cut production in support of crude prices, which have halved since June 2014.
While Mohammed bin Nayef is a familiar figure both inside the kingdom and in the West for his role in quashing an al Qaeda uprising and leading Saudi policy in Syria, his successor as second in line to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, is comparatively unknown.
Until four months and six days ago, the young Prince Mohammed had only served as head of his father's court, was a virtual stranger to the Saudi public and had had relatively little contact with the kingdom's foreign partners.
Since then he has become, as Defence Minister, the face of Saudi Arabia's newly-launched war in Yemen, with his bearded features rarely off television screens or street billboards, and is now established as a central figure.
"Mohammed bin Salman can grow into the job under Mohammed bin Nayef's supervision," said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with close ties to the kingdom's Interior Ministry.
The replacement of Prince Muqrin, Salman's youngest half brother, as crown prince means the present monarch will be the last of the sons of Saudi Arabia's founder King Abdulaziz Al Saud to rule after five of his brothers.
It also ends concerns about a line of increasingly frail, aged kings after Salman, who is 80 this year, replaced the 90 year old Abdullah.
"We don't want Saudi Arabia to be ruled by one ailing leader after another," said Jamal Khashoggi, general manager of al-Arab television station.
The move also solidifies Salman's own branch of the ruling family. Abdullah's only son in a position of significant power now is Prince Miteb, who is head of the national guard and was retained in his post on Wednesday.
The new deputy crown prince, who also serves as head of a top committee on economy and development, was replaced as royal court chief on Wednesday by Hamed al-Sweilam, the decree said, possibly to answer critics who said he had too many jobs.