The change in Riyadh

Breaking with tradition under which the founder of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia Abdul Aziz Al Saud’s sons ascended to the throne in an order of seniority, in a surprise move on Wednesday King Salman bin Abdul Aziz removed the last of Al Saud’s progeny, Prince Muqrin, as the crown prince appointing a nephew Mohammed bin Nayef as the new crown prince and his own young son, Mohammed bin Salman, as the second in line to the throne. Prince Saud al-Faisal, Foreign Minister for the last 40 years, too has been replaced with a non-royal, Abdel al-Jubeir, Saudi ambassador to the US. From the perspective of outsiders, preparing a new generation to take the baton from a line of old and weak monarchs is a sign of stability. The change, however, may be aimed at consolidation of power and to have the king’s 30-year-old son stand in the line of succession, which may not sit well with older members of the royal household. Prince Muqrin, nonetheless, has pledged allegiance to both the new crown prince and his deputy. Irrespective of the palace politics, the change holds significant implications for the kingdom’s policies.

Since the increase of shale oil production, the US is said to have been gradually paying less attention to Saudi concerns, such as the kingdom’s interest in attempts to oust the Assad regime in Syria, and the prospective P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. Given the background, much is being made of Crown Prince Nayef’s close ties to the American establishment as well as the new Foreign Minister’s good relations with senior US officials. The US had its own reasons to step back from supporting Saudi-backed anti-Assad opposition fighters, and to settle the nuclear issue with Iran. But it still has strong interest in Saudi security, as demonstrated by its show of support for the Saudi air strikes in Yemen. A common Saudi and American concern is the turmoil in the Middle East. Both the Crown Prince as interior minister and his young deputy as the defence minister – appointed to the position after his father’s ascension to the throne about four months back – have been taking a tough line in confronting the situation. They are the architects of the plan to launch military campaign in Yemen.

The campaign so far has not achieved the desired objective – that of restoring the ousted Yemeni president to power – but is reflective of the new leadership’s resolve to take a strong stand in dealing with foreign policy challenges. Presiding over external and internal security affairs the two princes have also managed to build the regional states ‘coalition of the willing’ to face up to what they see as Iran’s growing influence in the region. They have been coming down hard on domestic dissent as well, arresting scores of suspected militants linked to the so-called Islamic State. It remains to be seen though if the support for radical extremists elsewhere is to remain or undergo review. What is clear is that Riyadh is ready more than ever before to confront challenges to its position and interests in the region.