King Salman reshuffles in bid to protect MBS and shore up internal position

Published in GSN, 10 January 2019

An unexpected reshuffle of senior officials on 27 December, along with the trial of 11 unnamed individuals for the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has sent a clear signal that King Salman Bin Abdelaziz is determined to protect his son Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) from any fallout from the killing, while also trying to rebuild Saudi Arabia’s standing on the world stage.

Perhaps the most surprising move was the demotion of softly-spoken foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir, for long seen as a silky messenger to US and other western interests. His role has been taken over by Ibrahim Al-Assaf, who served as finance minister from 1996 to 2016. Al-Jubeir will now serve as Al-Assaf’s number two, with the title of minister of state for foreign affairs. While this would appear to mimic the set-up in the UAE, where minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash has a prominent role behind foreign minster Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nayhan, Al-Jubeir may be forced to step back from the spotlight, paying a price for his failure to control the international condemnation over the Khashoggi affair as well as the Yemen war and, to a lesser extent, the Qatar crisis.

Al-Assaf’s appointment marks a return to favour for the veteran official, who was sacked from the Ministry of Finance in October 2016 and was then detained at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the November 2017 purge orchestrated by MBS (GSN 1,048/1). Al-Assaf’s return to the frontline may offer some useful diplomatic cover to Riyadh if it decides to alter its approach to key regional files such as Syria, Yemen or Qatar. It also gives an insight into how many of the Ritz-Carlton detainees can expect to be treated in the current Saudi system. “What the crown prince can take away he can also give back,” a local lawyer commented.

Beyond the cabinet but still in the diplomatic sphere, Prince Mohammed Bin Nawaf Bin Abdelaziz has been sacked after many (hardly dynamic) years as ambassador to the UK. Prince Mohammed was seen to be close to Prince Ahmed Bin Abdelaziz, the veteran royal who caused a stir last year when he blamed the Yemen war on the Al-Salman leadership (GSN 1,065/1). It is as yet unclear who will take over in London. There may also soon be new leadership at the Saudi embassy in Washington.

To Riyadh’s critics, such personnel changes are little more than window dressing. There has been no apparent attempt to restrict MBS’s power or influence. The crown prince retains all his many positions including crown prince, defence minister and chairman of the both major policy-making bodies, the Council of Political and Security Affairs (CPSA) and Council of Economic and Development Affair (CEDA).

Security sector changes

Indeed, appointments in the security arena have reinforced the crown prince’s influence. MBS ally Prince Abdullah Bin Bandar has been named minister for the Saudi Arabian National Guard (Sang), in a promotion from his previous role as deputy governor of Mecca region.

At the same time, Musaed Bin Mohammed Al-Aiban has taken over as National Security Advisor, replacing Mohammed Bin Saleh Al-Ghofaili who had held the post since April 2017. The well-connected Al-Aiban has been a trusted ally of MBS for many years and is a member of both the CPSA and CEDA (GSN 986/8). Al-Aiban has also been chairman of the National Cybersecurity Authority since it was set up in October 2017.

General Khalid Bin Qarar Al-Harbi has taken over as director of public security, replacing Lieutenant General Saud Bin Abdelaziz Hilal, who is now an advisor with unspecified duties at the Ministry of Interior. Al-Harbi was previously commander of Special Emergency Forces and of the Hajj Security Forces.

A number of regional governorships also changed hands. Prince Turki Bin Talal Bin Abdelaziz has been promoted from deputy governor to governor of the sensitive Asir region in the south-east, replacing Prince Faisal Bin Khalid Bin Abdelaziz. Turki was only named deputy governor in March (GSN 1,055/1). His promotion came just days after the death was announced of his maverick father Prince Tala Bin Abdelaziz.

Prince Faisal Bin Nawaf Bin Abdelaziz was named governor of Al-Jouf in the north-west, replacing Prince Badr Bin Sultan Bin Abdelaziz, who held the job for less than a year. Prince Badr has been moved to deputy governor of the more prestigious Mecca region, where he takes over from the now Sang minister Abdullah Bin Bandar. Prince Mansour Bin Mohammed Bin Saad is the new governor of Hafar Al-Batin, part of the Eastern Province close to the border with Iraq and Kuwait.

There were also notable changes in some other government bodies. Prince Abdelaziz Bin Turki Bin Faisal Bin Abdelaziz has been appointed chairman of the General Sports Authority, relieving Turki Bin Abdulmohsen Al Al-Sheikh who has been moved across to become chairman of the General Entertainment Authority. Both authorities have an important role to play in the Vision 2030 reforms being pushed by MBS – observers suggest these changes may be a way of MBS ensuring minds stay focused on the tasks in hand.

MBS’s older brother Prince Sultan Bin Salman has also left his long-held post as chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. He is replaced by Ahmed Bin Aqeel Al-Khatib. Sultan Bin Salman has instead been named the chairman of the newly established Saudi Space Agency – a natural fit for the man who in 1985 became the first Arab to go into space (GSN 149/11).

In a further change of protential longer-term significance, King Salman ordered a Court of the Council of Ministers to be set up, to control of a variety of bodies which currently report to the Council of Ministers, including its General Secretariat and Bureau of Experts, as well as other yet-to-be-named bodies associated with the Royal Court. Meanwhile, the Royal Protocol office is itself to be annexed to the Royal Court. It is not clear what has motivated the new structure.