from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Saudis Make Some Changes

April 29, 2015

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The Saudi Royal court announced several important decisions yesterday. The most significant are the retirement of Saud Al-Faisal as foreign minister and his replacement by Adel Al-Jubeir, who has been Saudi ambassador to the United States, and most important of all a change in the line of succession. Crown Prince Muqrin is out, deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN) is now first in line for the throne, and the new deputy crown prince is the king’s son Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).

What should we make of all this? "Too soon to tell" is a safe answer because we cannot tell where things will stand one or two years from now. Is it the king’s intention to make his son MbS his successor, such that in a few years he will move MbN aside? This thought must have occurred to those who’ve watched him push aside Muqrin-- not least to MbN himself. Or will MbN become king some day, only to replace MbS just as Muqrin was replaced? Saudi watchers will know that there is a key difference here: Muqrin was widely popular but not thought highly competent, while MbN is widely thought to be a very effective official who is up to the leadership positions he is being given.

For the moment, we now have two members of the next generation-- grandsons, not sons, of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud-- in line for the throne. So one thing is now very clear: King Salman is the last of his generation who will rule. And as I noted in a previous blog post, that move from one generation to the next was once ought likely to generate a crisis. Instead the Al-Saud have handled it smoothly and with broad (though apparently not universal) family approval.

And Saud’s replacement by a commoner, not a prince, is another sign of change. It’s true that Saud was preceded by a commoner but that was decades ago and top jobs have been held by princes since then. It will be interesting to watch who replaces Al-Jubeir in Washington, and whether he has a role in that selection. Meanwhile the oil minister Naimi remains in place, another commoner with an important portfolio.

In a recent visit to the kingdom I had the sense that things were beginning to change. For one thing, a minor but suggestive item, the front desk at the huge hotel in which I stayed was manned by Saudis. It wasn’t too long ago that Pakistanis or other Asians performed all such jobs. More importantly, King Salman has created two new councils, one for national security matters and one for economic or domestic affairs, and the apparent intent is to organize the government for the coming decades. Put another way, there may be a realization that the kingdom can no longer be run by a dozen brothers meeting from time to time. Most of those brothers, sons of the founder, are now dead, and the challenges facing the country are simply too complex. So more formal mechanisms are being created.

Like the rise of officials whose qualifications are based on merit rather than blood, it’s a good sign. No, Saudi Arabia is not going to look like a Western democracy, and none of these moves suggests any public role in governance. Sooner or later the royals will have to face that issue: bringing the people of the country into some form of partnership in creating the Saudi future. But for now, rationalizing the government would be a major achievement. If the moves being made so quickly under King Salman are steps in that direction, they are welcome ones.

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