Saudi king resets succession in major shake-up

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia`s King Salman appointed a new heir and made his young son second in line to the throne on Wednesday, a major shift in power towards the two princes who have overseen a more assertive stance at a time of almost unprecedented regional turmoil.

He made Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, crown prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, 30, the deputy crown prince, effectively deciding the line of succession for decades to come in the kingdom.

The appointments signal a tougher foreign policy but little change in the tough stance on dissent at home, where Riyadh this week said it had detained 93 suspected militants of the self-styled Islamic State (IS).

Almost all powers under the king are now concentrated in the hands of the two princes, who chair committees determining all security and economic development issues in Saudi Arabia, and have led Riyadh`s month-old campaign of air strikes in Yemen.

In another big shif t, King 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 Mohammed bin Nayef, who replaces Prince Muqrin, the successor chosen by the late king Abdullah before his death in January, enjoys closer personal ties with US officials than almost any other senior member of the royal family, 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.

The decision to bomb Yemen, closely associated with both heirs, is seen by analysts as indicative of a more confrontational foreign policy under King Salman and his team, who have worked to build a coalition of Sunni allies against Iran.

Riyadh appears increasingly determined to counter Tehran`s allies, including in Syria, where Saudi-backed rebels against President Bashar al-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.

The shake-up 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 Mohammed bin Nayef, who has better ties to the American establishment than any other prince, may help alleviate such concerns, along with the appointment of Mr Jubeir, who also enjoys close ties with figures throughout Washington.

Saudi Arabia faces long-term domestic challenges, including entrenched youth unemployment, unsustainable state spending and tension between religious conservatives and more Western-oriented liberals.

The reshuffle also touched the oil sector, hugely sensitive to financial markets as the world`s biggest petroleum exporting country holds the key to global supplies.

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.

Mr 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 pol-icy was not likely to change.

While Mohammed 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, Mohammed bin Salman, is comparatively unknown.

Until four months and six days ago, the young Prince Mohammed had only served as head of his father`s court, and 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 defence minister, the face of Saudi Arabia`s newly-launched war in Yemen, with his 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,` Mr Alani said.

The replacement of Prince Mugrin, 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.

It also ends concerns about a line of increasingly frail, aged kings after Salman, 80, replaced the 90-year-old Abdullah.-Reuters

Published in Dawn