Saudi Arabia has announced a major reshuffle of the oil-rich nation’s cabinet in a move that experts say consolidates even more power into the hands of King Salman’s son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been widely criticised over his ties to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his nation’s war in Yemen.
A series of decrees issued by the king placed key cabinet posts, military positions and governorships in the hands of younger royal family members and other figures more closely allied with the crown prince, several experts in Middle Eastern politics said.
Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, a think tank close to the leadership in Riyadh, told The Independent that the crown prince, whose name is often abbreviated to MbS, was “consolidating power”.
He said: “Not only the cabinet, also new royal governors are very close to him.”
Despite the scandal over the brutal murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi, one close adviser to crown prince, Turki al-Sheikh, retained a prominent post as sports minister.
“MbS is taking no steps back,” Cinzia Bianco, a Saudi expert at consultancy Gulf State Analytics told The Independent.
Prince Mohammed continues to hold the key post of defence minister and will head a political and security affairs council that includes key officials.
Among the appointments were Prince Abdullah bin Bandar to the head of the Saudi National Guard, and several other “third-generation” royals who share Prince Mohammed’s vision.
The reshuffle elevated the former minister of finance Ibrahim Assaf, a well-regarded figure among international elites of the type who gather at the World Economic Forum at Davos, to the post of foreign minister, a dramatic career turnaround after he was dismissed from his posts and locked up by Prince Mohammed in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh last year as part of an effort to sideline and shake down royal rivals.
“I still can’t get over that Assaf is now the foreign minister – from bring held at the Ritz, to now being a minister of foreign affairs at a critical time,” said one Persian Gulf specialist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the press. “They need someone who can help clean up the image of the kingdom and someone that the foreign states trust,” said the analyst. “Assaf is a very interesting choice because he knows the very dark side of the leadership, and maybe he will do a better job at representing them.”
One figure close to Saudi leadership described Mr Assaf’s rise as an attempt to address the kingdom’s PR woes.
“He was brought in to give gravitas and a message that says foreign policy is reverting to its more mature past,” the specialist added.
Mr Assaf replaces Adel Jubeir, often the face of the country during the recriminations abroad over Khashoggi. He has been demoted to more junior state minister posting. “Jubair clearly disappointed during the Jamal Khashoggi case,” said the analyst.
Ms Bianco noted that despite Mr Assaf’s association with the older international posture of Saudi Arabia, before Prince Mohammed’s rise, he remains a supporter of his proposed changes, including the much-hyped Vision 2030 scheme to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on hydrocarbon revenues.
“The new foreign minister is indeed old guard but one of the few who has embraced Vision 2030 and you will see his Ministry Of Foreign Affairs will be more akin to economic relations,” she said.
Under King Salman, Saudi Arabia has jettisoned a decades-old traditional decision-making system built on consensus among factions of the royal family and concentrated power in the hands of one man, the 33-year-old crown prince. After the Khashoggi debacle and western criticism over the handling of the war in Yemen, some observers had hoped that the king would place some restraints on his behaviour.
But others noted that looking to the king in hopes of change may be fruitless. “For all the changes in Saudi Arabia today with the cabinet reshuffle, remember this,” HA Hellyer, a scholar at the Atlantic Council and Royal United Services Institute, quipped on Twitter: “If and when MbS becomes king, he can just as easily dismiss the whole cabinet.”
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