Saudi Arabia has the rare distinction of being a nation named after a single family. On Wednesday, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud doubled down on this authoritarian tradition with a bold power play designed to further centralize power while disinheriting other branches of the Al Saud family.
Of the handful of personnel moves, most significant is Salman’s decision to replace the heir imposed on him before coming to power – his half-brother Crown Prince Muqrin – with Muqrin’s appointed successor, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is also the king’s loyal nephew.
As if to remove any doubt as to how authority would be shared, Salman also decreed that his own son (also named Mohammed) would be the new deputy crown prince. Along with dispossessing Muqrin and making several smaller changes to cabinet portfolios, the king also stripped the foreign minister post from Prince Saud al-Faisal, the long-serving scion of another branch of the family, instead giving the office to Adel al-Jubeir, a technocratic non-royal previously serving as ambassador to Washington.
Salman succeeded his late half-brother Abdullah in January and executed what some observers called the “revenge of the Sudairy,” handing major levers of power to the line of the family that includes his and his full brothers’ offspring. Most notably, Salman removed Prince Bandar bin Sultan from his position atop the National Security Council (NSC) and ended the tenure of Abdullah’s sons as governors of the regions surrounding the holy city of Mecca and the capital Riyadh. Twelve government bodies, including the NSC, were abolished and re-formed into two – one for security and another for economics – each chaired by one of the Mohammeds. Today’s sequel to those developments suggests that the new Saudi order will be less prone to gridlock than it was under Abdullah, but also more inclined toward authoritarianism.
The new heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Nayef, has a controversial legacy, having been a top decision-maker in the kingdom’s Interior Ministry since before the 9/11 attacks and serving as its minister since 2012. While a favored counterterrorism interlocutor for the West, the ministry he oversees is also responsible for Saudi Arabia’s brutal campaign of repression against nonviolent human rights defenders and its controversial practice of public beheadings and floggings by the state. Indeed, the civil society campaign that seeks to win Saudi women the right to drive warned late last year that history “will never forgive” America if it supports bin Nayef as king. His ministry’s announcement yesterday revealing the arrests in recent months of 93 individuals with alleged links to terror was likely a timely attempt to burnish that his credentials as an enforcer of public order.
With the elevation of bin Nayef and former ambassador al-Jubeir, Washington will have several longtime contacts within Riyadh’s inner circle. President Obama revealed this month that he would invite Arab monarchs from the Gulf to Camp David in May to discuss not just external threats such as Iran but also the urgency of pursuing internal reform in order to stave off radicalism and unrest. This week’s Saudi reshuffle is a worrying sign that the kingdom is moving in precisely the opposite direction.
David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWeinberg