RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud appointed a new heir and made his young son second in line to rule Wednesday, a major shift in power toward two princes who have overseen a more assertive stance at a time of almost unprecedented regional turmoil.
By making Interior Minister Mohammad bin Nayef, 55, crown prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman, 30, deputy crown prince, King Salman has effectively decided the line of succession for decades to come in the world’s top oil exporter.
The appointments signal a tougher foreign policy, particularly toward regional foe Iran, but little change to a firm hand against dissent at home, where Riyadh this week said it had detained 93 suspected ISIS militants.
Almost all powers under the king are now concentrated in the hands of the pair, who each chair committees determining all security and economic development issues in Saudi Arabia, and have led Riyadh’s month-old campaign of airstrikes in Yemen.
In another big shift, Salman replaced veteran Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who had served in the role since October 1975, with the kingdom’s Washington ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, the first non-royal to hold the post.
Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, who replaces Prince Muqrin, the successor chosen by the late King Abdullah before his death in January, enjoys closer personal ties with U.S. officials than almost any other senior royal, diplomats have said.
The changes come as Saudi Arabia navigates the messy aftermath of the Arab spring and worries that its strategic partner Washington is disengaging from the region. It has broken with decades of backroom politics by bombing Yemen.
The Yemen move, closely associated with both heirs, is seen by analysts as indicative of a more confrontational foreign policy under Salman and his ruling team, who have worked to build a coalition of allies against Iran. Riyadh appears increasingly determined to counter Tehran’s allies, including in Syria, where Saudi-backed rebels against President Bashar Assad have recently made gains.
“I think we’re going to see a more confrontational policy, faster decision-making and more long-term thinking. A leadership that won’t hesitate from any confrontation,” said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with close ties to the kingdom’s Interior Ministry.
It follows what many Saudis see as a decade of growing Iranian influence across the Middle East coupled with concerns that the United States, long Riyadh’s security guarantor, has stopped listening.
The appointment of Mohammad bin Nayef, who has better ties to the American establishment than any other prince, may help alleviate such concerns, along with the appointment of Jubeir, who also enjoys close ties with figures throughout Washington. The reshuffle also touched the hugely important oil sector. In a statement, state oil firm Aramco described its head Khalid al-Falih as the outgoing CEO and president, but also as chairman of its board of directors, appearing to confirm an earlier report on Al-Arabiya television. Falih was named as the new health minister in Wednesday’s royal decree. A new Aramco CEO has not been named but analysts said oil policy was not likely to change.
While Mohammad bin Nayef is a familiar figure both inside the kingdom and in the West for his role in quashing an Al-Qaeda uprising and leading Saudi policy in Syria, his successor as second in line to the throne, Mohammad bin Salman, is comparatively unknown.
Until four months and six days ago, the young Prince Mohammad had only served as head of his father’s court, was a virtual stranger to the Saudi public and had had relatively little contact with the kingdom’s foreign partners.
Since then he has become, as defense minister, the face of Saudi Arabia’s newly launched war in Yemen, with his bearded features rarely off television screens or street billboards, and is now established as a central figure.
“Mohammed bin Salman can grow into the job under Mohammed bin Nayef’s supervision,” Alani said.
The replacement of Prince Muqrin, Salman’s youngest half-brother, as crown prince means the present monarch will be the last of the sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder King Abdulaziz al-Saud to rule after five of his brothers.