The shake-up comes just weeks before Saudi Arabia and other members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council are to meet with President Obama in the United States.
In a series of predawn appointments Wednesday, King Salman of Saudi Arabia eased the potentially treacherous issue of royal succession by placing a new generation of security-focused leaders first in the line of succession.
The changes carry the potential to reshape not only the kingdom and its place in the region, but its relations with its most important ally, the United States.
“The government is now in the hands of the next generation, under the supervision of the king,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst.
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With Saudi Arabia locked in bloody proxy wars with its long-standing regional rival, Iran, for influence in Yemen and Syria, the 79-year-old king promoted the two princes most responsible for the kingdom’s security.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, the interior minister who has headed the kingdom’s counterterrorism efforts, was installed as crown prince, with Salman pushing aside his youngest half-brother, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, 69.
The defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who may be in his mid-30s or even younger, and is one of the king’s youngest sons, was named deputy crown prince. It was a startling move in a royal dynasty that puts great stock in age; when lining up to greet the king, Al Saud princes long stood in a row according to age.
Prince Saud al-Faisal, who had served as foreign minister for four decades, was replaced by the much younger Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
While not of royal blood, al-Jubeir is well-connected in the United States and has recently served as the international spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab coalition that intervened this month in the Yemen civil war.
Another commoner, Ahmed al Sweilam, was appointed to the influential position of head of the royal court, making him a man to watch in Riyadh, analysts said.
The shake-up comes just weeks before Saudi Arabia and other members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council are to meet with President Obama in Washington and at Camp David, Md., on May 13-14, for what had been expected to be a discussion of the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Propelling the moves are the death, aging and ill health of the top princes and frustration with what Saudi leaders see as U.S. neglect and an overeagerness to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran. As with many important decisions in the kingdom’s opaque ruling structure, the changes were announced by a royal decree. This one was released at 4 a.m. Wednesday.
It is a historic change, in that Mohammed bin Nayef becomes the first heir apparent who was not a son of King Abdulaziz, who founded the kingdom in 1932. By nominating a grandson, the current king answered a question that has been hanging over Saudi Arabia for at least a decade, as succession passed from one ailing, elderly son of the founding monarch to the next.
“This is King Salman’s solution to the aging-leader problem,” said a veteran Saudi analyst and one-time adviser to the government, Jamal Khashoggi. “I am sure that the king, who is aware and has an interest to preserve the dynasty in Saudi Arabia, came up with this solution.”
The new leaders, relatively young, consider terrorism and Iran to be the biggest security threats. They have shown little interest in democratic or social reforms. While advocating strong U.S. ties, they are increasingly willing to act independently — as in the Yemen campaign.
While the new appointments may cause some grumbling among left-out princes, it was not likely to destabilize the monarchy, said Steffen Hertog, an associate professor of comparative politics at the London School of Economics who studies Saudi Arabia.
“I don’t think there is any organized resistance, and no one else in the family still has a strong power base,” he said.
Although the official announcement said that Muqrin had asked to be relieved of his responsibilities, analysts in the Persian Gulf said the decision to replace him was prompted by his opposition to the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, where Iranian-backed insurgents, the Houthis, have made huge advances since last fall.
Few Saudis were surprised by Muqrin’s removal. Still, some saw an inauspicious precedent: If Salman could remove the crown prince designated by his predecessor, what would stop the next king from overriding Salman’s choice?
“In a sense, the king has set a precedent that may actually harm his son’s future career as much as aiding it,” Michael Stephens, the head of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar, wrote in an essay published online by Al-Jazeera.
The new line of succession clearly centers state power in the hands of Salman and his two successors at the expense of other branches of the family, Hertog said. All three men share a security-oriented view of the region that has led Saudi Arabia to pursue a more openly interventionist-foreign policy.
Aside from consolidating the throne around two key princes in the security establishment, the new line of succession also restores the Sudairi clan to the core of power. The seven sons that King Abdulaziz had with Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, his favorite wife, long formed a powerful alliance within the sprawling royal dynasty.
For nearly three decades, King Fahd and two Sudairi brothers, Prince Sultan, the defense minister, and Prince Nayef, the interior minister, were the triumvirate who ran the kingdom, brooking little criticism and jailing dissenters.
King Abdullah, who succeeded King Fahd in 2005, somewhat diluted the grip of the powerful clan, but with these changes, Salman, a Sudairi, has firmly returned his clan to center stage.
The decree announcing the changes said it had been approved by the Allegiance Council, a committee made up of one member representing the family of each of the roughly 36 sons of the founding monarch.
With 7,000 members of the ruling family, periodic predictions that the House of Saud was wobbling have long seemed implausible. The fear instead was that competing factions within the Al Saud clan would turn on each other in the fight for the throne. If King Salman’s decision sticks, that appears less likely.