Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Saudi Arabia’s new monarch isn’t wasting time. Since assuming the throne Jan. 23, King Salman has elevated some of his closest relatives and sidelined previous power-brokers, tightened decision-making and promised lavish payouts designed to win early goodwill.
While his new administration gives greater prominence to younger generations, it remains to be seen whether the swift housecleaning will lead to greater political rights and other reforms in the ultraconservative kingdom. One clear winner in the shake-up is Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who has been interior minister since 2012 and spearheads counterterrorism efforts.
King Salman named the 55-year-old as deputy crown prince in one of his first acts as king. That’s a historic change, because for the first time it puts a grandson of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, on course to rule. He becomes second in line to the throne behind Salman’s half brother Crown Prince Muqrin, who is 69.
Mohammed bin Nayef, who helped to establish a center for rehabilitating former jihadists, survived a 2009 assassination attempt, a suicide bombing orchestrated by al-Qaida’s branch in neighboring Yemen.
He studied in the U.S. state of Oregon and has worked to strengthen American-Saudi ties. Shortly before King Abdullah’s death, Mohammed bin Nayef held talks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office focused on fighting terrorism and other security issues.
Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute, described him as “Mr. Security” with favorable reviews from U.S. officials. Another rising star is one of the king’s sons, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is in his mid-30s.
Salman named the prince as his replacement as defense minister hours after taking the throne. Mohammed bin Salman also oversees royal protocol and is a special adviser to the king, increasing his influence in the royal court. The king elevated another son, Abdulaziz bin Salman, to deputy oil minister as the kingdom weathers a severe slump in the value of its most precious commodity.
The long-serving oil minister, Ali Naimi, is one of few Cabinet ministers not to lose his job in the shake-up. He oversees the management of the energy giant’s nearly 270 billion barrels of oil reserves and leads the kingdom’s negotiating team at OPEC meetings, where Saudi policy dominates.
Abdulaziz bin Salman’s promotion increases the chances that the prince could succeed Naimi.
Salman also opted to retain long-serving Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to lead diplomatic relations with Shiite powerhouse Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival.
Al-Faisal last year invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to visit Saudi Arabia, but later accused Iran of fomenting unrest throughout the Middle East. Zarif finally visited shortly after King Abdullah’s death, and expressed hopes of greater cooperation with the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
Salman also has overhauled policymaking by dissolving a dozen advisory bodies and replacing them with two new ones.
One of those sidelined in that shake-up is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who had led a National Security Council created by King Abdullah in 2005. Bandar, the former intelligence chief who was U.S. ambassador from 1983 to 2005, received no position in either of the two new panels: the Council of Political and Security Affairs, and the Council of Economic and Development Affairs.
Mohammed bin Nayef leads the first committee, Abdulaziz bin Salman the second.
Mustafa Alani, an expert on security and terrorism at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, said he expects the changes to promote better decision-making with an infusion of new political blood as Salman confronts security challenges in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
“Look at the map,” Alani said. “You can see the situation surrounding the country. … For this sort of environment, you need a new team.”
Another of Salman’s early acts has been to open the state coffers – a reminder that even in an absolute monarchy, public opinion matters. He promised to pay more than 1 million civil servants and soldiers a bonus equivalent to two months’ salary, and offered similarly generous cash gifts to students, pensioners, sports clubs, literary clubs and others.
It is too soon to say how the king will deal with those pressing for greater openness at home.
He has opened the door for pardoning inmates convicted on what are known as “public rights” charges, which could include political activists. But he has left the decision on who gets pardons to the Interior Ministry, which Amnesty International says is primarily responsible for the kingdom’s crackdown on dissenting voices.
Amnesty and other human rights groups are closely following the king’s handling of the case of blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison, a hefty fine and 1,000 lashes. He was flogged once in January but has not faced any lashes since Salman took charge. Souad al-Shammari, the co-founder of Badawi’s liberal blog, was quietly released last week after three months in detention.
Alani said King Salman would likely continue his predecessor’s policy of gradual reform, which included curbing the power of the religious establishment and easing restrictions on women, who are still barred from driving cars.
“The direction is to go for more reform, not less,” he said. “The environment has changed. You have social media, and nobody can control any society now. And I think this is understood by the leadership.”