The Obama administration said a major power shake-up in Saudi Arabia, where the nation’s counterterrorism czar was abruptly promoted to crown prince and its ambassador to the U.S. elevated to foreign minister, would not undercut relations with one of Washington’s most critical Middle East allies.
While the moves represent the most sweeping personnel changes since King Salman ascended to the throne in January, officials at the White House and State Department said they expect no significant shift in relations with Riyadh, the world’s biggest buyer of U.S. military hardware and the world’s dominant oil exporter.
“We’re going to continue to enjoy close, productive relationships with the leaders of Saudi Arabia,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. “It’s clearly in the best interests of the United States, it’s clearly in the best interests of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and that’s why we’re confident that the U.S.-Saudi relationship will continue to be strong.”
In a surprise decree circulated at around 4 a.m. Riyadh time on Wednesday, the new king announced the removal of his 69-year-old half-brother Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz from the crown prince post, replacing him with his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and elevating his own son to deputy crown prince. The shake-up comes amid a deeply troubled Middle East landscape, with Saudi Arabia and Iran fighting for dominance and civil war and political uncertainty plaguing a string of key nations.
Prince Nayef, currently Saudi Arabia’s interior minister and widely known internationally as the nation’s counterterrorism czar, now stands as the most likely successor to the throne.
In equally dramatic change, 75-year-old Prince Saud al-Faisal, the nation’s foreign minister for the past 40 years, was replaced by 53-year-old Adel al-Jubeir, the kingdom’s high-profile ambassador to Washington.
A source close to the Saudi government said the changes appeared driven by the king’s desire to “adapt to changing times” and that more announcements could be coming soon. “These kinds of moves distinguish him from his predecessors because he’s not promoting 90-year-old men into future leadership positions,” said the source on condition of anonymity.
Opaque as they may be, factors other than age may be at play.
As part of Wednesday’s decree, the most senior woman in the Saudi government, Nora al-Fayez, was sacked from her post as deputy education minister for girls. Shunned by ultraconservatives, she was strongly pushing to try to get physical education on the curriculum for girls in Saudi public schools.
The king also elevated well-known Saudi businessman Khaled al-Faleh from the position of chief executive to chairman of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned petroleum and natural gas company. It was not immediately clear how the move might impact the status of longtime Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi.
Despite the White House’s expression of confidence, there was greater uncertainty among private analysts about the power shift. Some argued the changes effectively consolidate control within the royal family’s “Sudairi” branch — of which the King Salman and Prince Nayef are members — at the expense of other power centers among the Saudi ruling class.
Wednesday’s moves “seem to marginalize the descendants of other late kings, including King Abdullah and King Faisal, which count among them many talented leaders in Saudi public life,” said Jon B. Alterman, who heads the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies.
But any internal blowback is likely to be kept secret. While the “new line of succession will need to both assert its control and ensure that those excluded still feel deeply vested in preserving the system,” Mr. Alterman wrote in an email to reporters, “almost all of the resultant politics will be invisible to anyone outside the royal family.”
The promotions of Mr. al-Jubeir and Prince Nayef may also signal the king’s eagerness for deeper U.S.-Saudi ties to counter the Obama administration’s growing push for nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
Prince Nayef has worked closely with U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence officials, including CIA Director John O. Brennan. And Mr. al-Jubeir is a Washington veteran with deep ties to both Republican and Democratic leaders, who was meeting with privately with Secretary of State John F. Kerry the day the news of his promotion broke.
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