Royal decrees bolster King Salman’s position
Washington- Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued a series of decrees that ordered a minor cabinet reshuffle and seemingly strengthens the power and influence of his branch of the royal house within government.
Notably, two of the appointments involved the king’s sons, with one key change appearing to be a response to the election of US President Donald Trump and Riyadh’s desire to improve US relations, which had soured during President Barack Obama’s years in the White House.
King Salman appointed his son, Prince Khaled bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is believed to be in his 20s, as the Saudi ambassador to Washington. The king elevated another son, veteran oil official Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, to cabinet level as minister of state for energy affairs.
Both appointments are perceived as bolstering King Salman’s branch of the Al Saud clan in the government and perhaps strengthening the hand of 31-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, another of King Salman’s sons and who is second in the royal line of succession.
Prince Khaled, a former Saudi Air Force fighter pilot who participated in missions targeting the Islamic State (ISIS) and served in Yemen, graduated from King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh and received training in the United States at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi. He served as an adviser at the Defence Ministry and as an adviser at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
The appointment of Prince Khaled, who has no previous diplomatic experience, follows the example King Salman set by elevating the young and inexperienced Prince Mohammed early in his reign to serve as deputy crown prince, defence minister, chief of the Royal Court and chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs.
It may well be that it is the youth of Prince Mohammed and Prince Khaled that King Salman is banking on to appeal to the large proportion of the Saudi population younger than 30.
The Trump administration and King Salman’s government are in the early stages of assessing each other, as reflected by the deputy crown prince’s hastily scheduled trip to Washington in March and visits to Riyadh by CIA Director Mike Pompeo in February and Defence Secretary James Mattis in April.
Both governments want to curb Iranian influence and Riyadh is hopeful the Trump administration will provide it with tangible support in its proxy war with Iran in Yemen.
By naming Prince Khaled ambassador to Washington, the Saudis are likely giving the Trump administration a direct line to the king. The move also gives the Salman branch the opportunity to mitigate efforts that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz may make to strengthen his own relationship with key Trump administration officials.
The king’s appointment of Prince Abdulaziz to the cabinet is in part a reward for the prince’s three decades of service in the state oil industry. It also provides King Salman with another supportive voice in his council of ministers.
In his first cabinet reshuffle after ascending to the throne, King Salman in February 2015 promoted Prince Abdulaziz from his position of assistant oil minister to deputy oil minister, which was seen at the time as diminishing the authority of then-Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi.
With his extensive knowledge of energy policy, Prince Abdulaziz is now on equal footing with Oil Minister Khalid al-Falih in cabinet discussions on energy — but this may put him at odds with his younger brother — Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed, who has taken a large hand in overseeing the kingdom’s energy policies.
That being said, Prince Abdulaziz, who turns 57 this year, is a seasoned participant at OPEC meetings and has an intimate understanding of global oil markets compared to Falih. The oil minister’s lengthy experience at Saudi Aramco was apparently more in the natural gas side of the business and, compared to Prince Abdulaziz, Falih is a relative newcomer to the global oil markets.
As part of his cabinet reshuffle, King Salman fired Khaled al-Araj as minister of civil service. Araj is under investigation by the kingdom’s anti-corruption commission. The king also replaced the minister of information and culture and the minister of communication and information technology.
In a significant move, the king sacked the commander of the Saudi ground forces, Lieutenant-General Eid al-Shalawi, who led the ground campaign in Yemen and replaced him with Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Abdulaziz.
In other appointments, the king replaced three regional governors and named eight young princes as regional deputy governors. The moves were another sign pointing to the Salman regime working to solidify its power base during turbulent times.