Shake-up in Saudi Arabia as King Salman bids to boost regime

Appointments and decrees include naming of king’s son Khaled as ambassador to US

King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud: expected to boost the kingdom’s relationship with the Trump administration following its decline under Barack Obama. Photograph: Bandar Al-Jaloud/AFP/Getty Images

King Salman of Saudi Arabia has sworn in a new cabinet, made key provincial appointments, and issued decrees revoking salary and bonus cuts for ministers and civil servants, in a bid to strengthen his regime.

The king also named his son, Prince Khaled, as the kingdom's ambassador to the US and chose as provincial governors and deputy governors a number of great-grandsons of the monarchy's founder, Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, handing over authority to the fourth generation.

They each took an oath to be “loyal to my religion, king and homeland”.

Prince Khaled, said to be in his 20s, is a younger full brother of the king’s 32-year old favourite son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed. A former fighter pilot trained by the US air force, Prince Khaled was groomed for the Washington embassy post over the last year.


He is expected to boost the kingdom's relationship with the Trump administration following its decline under President Barack Obama.

The prince could be a key ally of his brother if and when he ascends to the throne and is seen as a successor to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who served from 1983-2005 and became an influential figure in Washington and on the international scene.

The king has consolidated the grip on power of Prince Mohamed, who serves as defence minister, chief of the royal court, and economic czar, by appointing his ally, Ahmad al-Asiri, to the post of deputy head of the intelligence services. Mr Asiri is currently spokesman for the Saudi war on Yemen.

The king also created an energy ministry to take over the oil brief and appointed another son, Prince Abdul Aziz, as minister.

These appointments weaken Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef (58), the king’s nephew, and could clear the way for his deputy’s succession.

Revoked cut

To court both political allies and the public, King Salman revoked a 20 per cent cut in ministers' salaries and restored bonuses and benefits to the civil service, which employs two-thirds of Saudis in the workforce. Strapped for cash due to the falling price of oil, Riyadh found austerity did not suit Saudis dependent on comfortable levels of living financed by oil revenues.

This retrenchment amounts to a reversal for Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s economic diversification project designed to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil by 2030. To divert attention from the prince’s involvement in the cuts, the king sacked minister of civil services Khaled al-Araj and referred him to a committee investigating corruption.

The appointments and decrees are intended to ensure the king’s favourite son will inherit the throne. The king also seeks to cement the primacy of his family, which belongs to the branch of the Saudi dynasty consisting of descendants of Abdel Aziz bin Saud’s favourite wife, Hassa al-Sudairi.

After taking power in January 2015 on the death of his half brother, the king, who is the last of seven Sudairi sons, named two Sudairis as his potential successors, effectively cutting out other branches.

Until then, the practice had been for a Sudairi to be succeeded by a non-Sudairi, with the aim of creating a stable base for the regime. By discarding this practice and now putting his own sons in key positions of power, the king has further narrowed the foundation of the regime and alienated some princes.

He has pursued this policy while trying to effect major economic and social reforms, which have already been met with resistance by conservative Wahhabi clerics who have been active partners of the Saud family since the 18th century.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times