What can be gleaned from Saudi King Salman’s latest cabinet reshuffle is that it comes as a step on the road to consolidating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) position as undisputed ruler, whenever his ascension to the throne takes place. The shakeup also takes place as the kingdom works to rehabilitate its image and reputation following the grueling international opprobrium resulting from the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October—in addition to several ill-advised foreign policy decisions. In fact, the reshuffle’s main purpose is to help redirect the international glare off MbS, who recently had a most unpleasant experience at the G20 meeting in Argentina where many world leaders avoided interacting with him.
Having apparently lost a public relations battle––essentially waged abroad––to exonerate MbS from the responsibility of ordering the killing, the Saudi leadership may have reasoned that a governmental shake-up that brings in more loyalists may help strengthen the crown prince’s domestic standing so that he can resist international pressure.
While the reshuffle has touched many aspects of Saudi life, its more important effects are on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). The first relates to the kingdom’s relations with the international community while the second concerns an important pillar of domestic stability and fealty to the royal family.
Former Saudi Ambassador to Washington and Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir was in effect demoted to become Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. He was replaced by former Minister of Finance Ibrahim al-Assaf. Al-Jubeir will continue to provide counsel regarding the kingdom’s varied interests around the world––especially in the United States––where Riyadh has faced relentless criticism over the Yemen war, its record on civic and human rights, and the Khashoggi murder. In these battles with the international community, al-Jubeir showed an uncanny ability to stick to the message from Riyadh about facing up to Iran, maintaining relations with allies (especially the United States), defending the intervention in Yemen, and denying MbS’s responsibility for Khashoggi’s killing. His was an impossible mission given international opinion about the last few years of Saudi domestic and foreign policies as charted and executed by the crown prince and his coterie of similarly inexperienced advisors.
Perhaps what al-Jubeir could not advocate well was properly selling MbS’s Vision 2030 abroad and securing the necessary foreign investments for its many projects.
Perhaps what al-Jubeir could not advocate well was properly selling MbS’s Vision 2030 abroad and securing the necessary foreign investments for its many projects. Al-Assaf very likely has the requisite credentials for the coming period. He was privy to Saudi Arabia’s finances for over two decades and is aware of the required trade-offs between the kingdom’s rentier economy, its social contract and patron-client relations, and international contractual standards. The length of his tenure will arguably depend on how well he combines the job al-Jubeir thanklessly tried to perform with attracting the necessary support the ambitious economic diversification program needs.
The length of al-Assaf’s tenure will arguably depend on how well he combines the job al-Jubeir thanklessly tried to perform with attracting the necessary support the ambitious economic diversification program needs.
Al-Assaf knows the centrality of the royal family, the Saudi state, and hydrocarbon resources as the main pillars of economic stability. He also recognizes the importance of the social contract between the ruler as patron and the ruled as client so that the kingdom’s political formula is not upset by privatization and economic transformation. Finally, his financial expertise and knowledge of international monetary institutions, rules, and standards allow him to find the balance between the need for foreign direct investment and foreign venturers’ acceptable returns on entering a largely untapped marketplace. Needless to say, that mission will not be easy considering MbS’s unfavorable reputation and lack of appeal.
On the other hand, changing SANG’s leadership shows a clear intention to reshape relations within the royal family to completely shut out opposition and secure tribal fealty to the Salman line of succession as represented by MbS. In the previous, stovepiped Saudi political arrangement, SANG had been the fief and base of support for the late King Abdullah (2005-2015) and his son Miteb bin Abdullah, until the latter was accused of corruption and sacked in November 2017. He was replaced by a nonentity, Khaled bin Abdulaziz. The latter was replaced in the new shake-up by another unremarkable royal, Deputy Emir of Mecca Province Prince Abdullah bin Bandar, who has no special qualifications or standing and will likely not cause any headaches for the crown prince.
Miteb’s sidelining was preceded by the firing of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (King Salman’s nephew) who also controlled the Ministry of Interior, his father Nayef’s redoubt for decades. Bin Nayef was replaced as minister of interior by his young and little-known nephew Abdulaziz bin Saud. The disappearance of Miteb bin Abdullah and Mohammed bin Nayef from the scene and the ascent of MbS have essentially deprived all opposition within the royal family of any institutional and historical standing. Additionally, restructuring other security agencies and bringing in MbS supporters basically puts the power of the state solely in the hands of the crown prince. If the November 2017 Ritz-Carlton incarcerations were any guide, MbS does not appear to have any qualms about using his vast powers against all opponents and critics in the royal family or in wider society.
King Salman’s reshuffle of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the National Guard is looking like the octogenarian’s final act of helping his son establish absolute one-man rule.
Indeed, King Salman’s reshuffle of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the National Guard is looking like the octogenarian’s final act of helping his son establish absolute one-man rule. Al-Assaf’s choice assures a foreign policy portfolio that doubles as an advertising agency for the crown prince’s economic plan while bin Bandar’s appointment provides the certainty that no other royal can muster the power to challenge MbS. Only time will tell if Salman’s choreography works. But the major impediment remains a combination of MbS’s bad standing internationally and his record of stifling any opposition to his domestic programs and authoritarianism.
Importantly, King Salman’s best shot at diverting the incessant attention to MbS’s responsibility for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi will likely not succeed. While the international community insists on full transparency in the affair––which so far is not forthcoming from Riyadh––Turkey, where the murder took place, continues to pursue leads in its own probe and to push for an international investigation supervised by the United Nations. To be sure, MbS’s future fortunes and development of grandiose plans will always be linked to scrutinizing his responsibility for ruthlessly silencing one of his critics—King Salman’s endeavors notwithstanding.