Salman sweeps away Abdullah appointees
Salman ibn Abd al Aziz, wasted little time taking the broom to almost all the appointees of his deceased predecessor Abdullah. In their place, he appointed his own sons and favourite nephews. How long will Bani Saud remain in power is an interesting question.
King Salman has done what every new Saudi monarch does. The first order of business is to issue a statement declaring that the Kingdom’s policies would not change. This is to assure external backers because they know how fragile the ruling system is in the Kingdom. With such assurances delivered — and approval of foreign masters obtained — the next order of business is to consolidate his grip on power.
This reflects personality-based rule. No shura please, we are Saudis! Every king appoints his favorite brothers, sons, and nephews to key positions (sisters and nieces, of course need not apply. They can go and enjoy themselves abroad!). What is noticeable about Salman’s demolition derby is the broom he took to his predecessor’s sons. In one sweep, he dismissed two of Abdullah’s sons from key posts. The governor of Makkah, Prince Mishaal bin Abdullah and governor of Riyadh Prince Turki bin Abdullah were both dismissed. The governorship of Makkah was handed back to Khaled al-Faisal who was dismissed by Abdullah to appoint his own son in May of last year. Faisal bin Bandar took over as governor of Riyadh. Also changed was the governor of Qassim, appointing another Saudi “royal,” Faisal bin Mishaal. While considered a heartland of Wahhabi support, discontent has been growing in Qassim province in recent years. Only Mitab bin Abdullah was left in his post as Commander of National Guard but his ministerial position was abolished.
Confirming family-based rule, King Salman on January 29 announced payment of a two-month salary bonus to state employees, pensioners, students, and military personnel. He followed this up with an interesting message on his Twitter account, “Dear people: You deserve more and whatever I do will not be able to give you what you deserve.” Precisely! If Salman had the capacity to listen, the people would say, “Your Majesty, please stop stealing our money.”
Other changes were also announced that are likely to have much greater impact. Muhammad bin Nayef, the Interior Minister, was appointed deputy crown prince. And Muhammad bin Salman, the king’s 34-year-old son, was handed the defence ministry that Salman vacated upon becoming king. More importantly, Salman appointed his son as director of the royal court. The (relatively) young Muhammad had served as his father’s gatekeeper when the latter was crown prince. Thus the son has been given two important portfolios at the young age of 34 (the average age of the first generation of “royals” is above 70).
King Salman’s dismissal of the long-time court director, Khalid al-Tuwaijri gives important clues to the future direction of his policies. Tuwaijri was the pre-eminent palace intriguer and had much to do with the Saudi policy of interference in other countries’ affairs and in stoking hostility against Islamic Iran, especially under Abdullah. The late king officially ruled from 2005–2015, but he became the de facto ruler when then King Fahd was incapacitated by a stroke in 1995. When viewed against the backdrop of the fact that the Tuwaijris have historically served as court directors, the change is earth-shattering.
Bruce Reidel, a former CIA analyst, described the “Saudi succession from King Abdullah to King Salman as a model of stability” (Al-Monitor, February 01, 2015). Perhaps, but the succession battle cannot be assumed to be over even if Muhammad bin Nayef, the most brutal of the next generation of Saudi royals has been made deputy crown prince.
The new crown prince, Muqrin bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, 70, is considered an outsider because his mother is Yemeni. Bani Saud are quite racist; they insist that true blood only flows through Saudi mothers, especially the Sudayris. Even Abdullah was considered somewhat of an outsider because his mother was from the Rashid clan, one of the rival clans that ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud defeated at the beginning of the last century when he occupied Riyadh. But ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was a wheeler-dealer; he co-opted the Rashids by marrying one of their girls adding her to his bevy of 23 wives.
Muqrin is accused of being weak and indecisive. This may be an uncharitable description. His weakness flows from being considered an “outsider” as well as being the youngest of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s sons. There are rumors that Prince Ahmed bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, who is 72, may challenge Muqrin’s accession to the throne once Salman dies. It is also revealing that unlike previous crown princes, Muqrin does not enjoy much power. Instead, Salman has put his own son Muhammad at centre stage, especially as gatekeeper to the court. With power totally centralized — and personalized — Muhammad bin Salman has been given vast powers by his aging and sickness-afflicted father. There are reports that Salman suffers from Alzheimers. Numerous visitors have also confirmed this. Thus, it can be safely assumed that most decisions would be made by Muhammad bin Salman. How much experience he has in state matters is a question that would have important bearings on the future of the Kingdom that many seasoned observers believe as teetering on the brink.
As part of the broom cleaning operations, Salman also dismissed Bandar bin Sultan as secretary-general of the National Security Council (which was abolished) and special envoy of the king. Few would shed any tears for the foul-mouthed Bandar’s dismissal although it would be wrong to assume that “royals” stay out of any role for too long, unless of course, they do something so nasty that they cannot be tolerated any longer. Also dismissed was Saudi intelligence head Khaled bin Bandar, who had replaced Bandar bin Sultan as intelligence chief only last summer.
As part of consolidating power in his own hands or those of his for-now trusted nephew, Muhammad bin Nayef, Salman abolished the 30-odd committees that were created by his predecessor. Now, there are two super committees that will manage the day-to-day affairs of the Kingdom. Muhammad bin Nayef will head the Council for Political and Security Affairs and Muhammad bin Salman takes control of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs. As Interior Minister, bin Nayef naturally controls security affairs; it is bin Salman that has the upperhand for now. He is defence minister as well as the economy czar; more critically, he determines who gets to see the king.
Salman did not leave two of his other sons out of the picture either. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Salman was appointed deputy oil minister but given ministerial rank to sit in the cabinet. What this suggests is that ‘Abd al-‘Aziz will probably become oil minister when ‘Ali Naimi, 79, is relieved of his duties. This may come sooner rather than later.
Of the three most important cities in the Kingdom — Makkah, Riyadh, and Madinah — the sacred city of Madinah has been handed to Prince Faisal bin Salman. It is interesting to note that all of the Kingdom’s governors are members of the “royal” family as are most ministers with the exception of Oil, Finance, Information and a few other ministries. On matters of technical importance — Oil and Finance — the Saudi “royals” are complete dunces. They only know how to steal money, with both hands!
A recent addition to the ministerial post was Adel al-Teraifi, PhD, from the London School of Economics. He was appointed Information Minister after serving as head of the Dubai-based but Saudi-funded TV channel al-Arabiya. It is a propaganda mouthpiece for the regime and based in Dubai to give the impression that it is independent.
With a flurry of appointments, one might get the impression that the new Saudi king is changing the Kingdom’s policies in response to internal and external pressures. This would be a misreading of the situation. In the Saudi kingdom, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And Salman is no exception. The elevation of Muhammad bin Nayef to the position of deputy crown prince is a clear sign that the regime’s enforcers will be out with clubs swinging, beating any heads that dare to raise themselves. The Saudi “royals” demand total submission, but will this be possible amid the growing discontent in the Kingdom, which is also now beset by its own created and nurtured monsters — the takfiri terrorists?