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The Saudi Royal Reshuffle Will Mean a Continued Hardening of Foreign Policy

A dramatic set of 4am announcements, widely publicized on Saudi state television, have changed the line of accession to the Saudi throne and replaced several high-profile cabinet ministers.
Photo by Hasan Jamali/AP

A series of dramatic early morning royal decrees issued by King Salman bin Abdulaziz on Wednesday have changed the line of accession to the Saudi throne and replaced several high-profile cabinet ministers. The 4am announcements, widely publicized on Saudi state television, represent the biggest political shakeup in the country since King Salman took the throne following the death of half-brother, Abdullah, in January.


Among the most significant changes are the appointment of a new crown prince and deputy crown prince, the monarch's designated successors.

The king's nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, has replaced the Salman's aging half-brother, 69-year-old Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, as the next heir to throne. He was previously appointed as second in line to the Saudi throne in January

Nayef, who has been the target of four assassination attempts, won notoriety as one country's hardmen for his role spearheading a counter-terrorism campaign against al Qaeda in the kingdom in 2003. The prince is considered among the most pro-American of the Saudi royals, having undertaken studies in US and participated in security training with both the FBI and UK anti-terrorism police.

The newly appointed deputy crown prince is the king's son, Mohammed bin Salman. The prince, who previously headed his father's court, has catapulted to prominence in recent months after being appointed defense minister in January, a position which has placed him at the helm of the ongoing Saudi-led military operation in Yemen.

The alteration to the line of heirs apparent appears at least partly aimed at accelerating the transition of power to the next generation — Nayef, the first grandson to be heir to the Saudi throne is aged 55, while Prince Salman is 30

King Salman, who took power after the death of his 90 year-old half-brother on January 23, is already 78 and suffers ill-health following a stroke that caused him to lose mobility in one arm.


Prior to Wednesday's announcement, all previous heirs to the throne in Saudi Arabia have been sons of the kingdom's founder Ibn Saud. But as the brothers have grown elderly there has been mounting concern that a leadership crisis may erupt if competing clans in the sprawling monarchy disagree about how to pass on power to future generations.

This change in guard has a distinctly political as well as practical dimension, however. "This represents an absolute clearing of the decks of the old guard and the putting in of a new guard which is much closer to King Salman," Michael Stephens, a Gulf analyst and Head of the Royal United Services Institute defense and security think-tank, told VICE News.

Notably, as well as the removal of Prince Murqin — who served as an advisor to the previous monarch King Abdullah and also headed Saudi's intelligence service for seven years under his rule — one of the most important ministerial changes was the replacement of veteran foreign minister Prince Saud al Faisal, who has held the position since 1975 and also worked closely with previous king.

"This is, in essence, a coup d'état against the dead king's regime," Christopher Davidson, a Middle East academic and Gulf expert, told VICE News. "King Salman has clearly leap-frogged his young son over other suitable candidates and pushed aside those who were close to King Abdullah… New [ministerial] appointees owe their positions to King Salman, and their loyalties will lie with him."


The new appointments will also likely mean a continued hardening of the kingdom's foreign policy in the region. A Saudi-led coalition of nine Sunni Gulf countries, backed by the United States, is more than a month into an air campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. Last week the kingdom announced a new phase of the operation called "Restoring Hope," but aircraft have continued to strike targets across the border.

"Mohammed Bin Nayef is widely regarded as a strong henchman in Saudi Arabia for his role in putting down al Qaeda, while the deputy crown prince is directly associated with warfare as a result of his trigger happy campaign of strikes across the border; essentially the hard men are being rewarded with positions at the top," Davidson told VICE News.

"The new regime has already shown itself to be militaristic, willing to take on Iran and willing to exploit sectarian tensions in the region," he added. "So it's quite clear that the kingdom's regional policy will get tougher," he added.

Other significant changes in the country's political landscape include the removal of Saudi Arabia's most senior female official, Norah al Faiz, from her post as the deputy education minister and the appointment of former Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel al Jubeir, as the first non-royal foreign minister.

A ceremony for the royal family to pledge allegiance to the new crown prince is expected to be held soon in the Justice Palace in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem