The Saudi monarchy’s recent shake-up of its succession plan catapults a younger generation of royals into leadership roles at a time when the country is attempting to assert regional political and military leadership and reshape its ties with Western allies, analysts say.
In a royal decree issued on Wednesday, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud sidelined his 69-year-old half-brother as crown prince, replacing him with his nephew. Reportedly upon his own request, Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz was relieved from his post and replaced with the interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who led a crackdown on al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia nearly a decade ago.
Riyadh will be hitting harder and faster, working with allies and making trouble for its enemies. The point is that the new generation of Saudi leaders are more assertive and willing to voice their opinions, not just through voice but through action.
King Salman also appointed his own son, Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince, and replaced the ageing Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal with the kingdom’s Washington ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir.
“This marks the first time in the kingdom’s history where a grandson of the founding king, Abdulaziz al-Saud ascends to the role of crown prince, and the changes represent a generational shift in power at the top,” Mansour al-Marzouqi, a Saudi political researcher, told Al Jazeera.
Both princes are part of a generation of grandsons of Saudi Arabia’s founder whose sons have passed power from brother to brother since his death in 1953.
“There will be immediate consequences to such changes, the main one being that we will likely see a change in foreign policy that has more room for cooperative and coherent policies where in the past, there was a vast sharing of power on a large scale between the sons of the founding king,” Marzouqi said. “Now, it is likely going to be between the two Mohammeds [bin Nayef and bin Salman].”
Saudi journalist and political writer Jamal Khashoggi told Al Jazeera that the recent changes come at a critical juncture in Saudi Arabian history, as the country turns towards a more “proactive and without hesitation” policy requiring those surrounding the king to be of a “stronger and younger generation who could move quickly to implement such policies”.
Bin Nayef, 55, who will retain his post as interior minister alongside his new position as crown prince, has been widely credited for leading Saudi’s domestic “counterterrorism” programme.
Though he did not receive a degree, he was educated in the United States and is broadly considered to be an influential voice within the younger generation of the royal family. However, his human rights record has come under scrutiny during his reign as interior minister, with a high number of social activists being imprisoned, and even flogged, in recent months.
“As far as whether Crown Prince Mohammed will be better than Muqrin or not, one can only assume based on his background, training and practises thus far, that he will replicate his father’s methods, ie, absolute rule,” Ali al-Yami, director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, told Al Jazeera.
“The reshuffle is no good news for human rights activists or political reformists. Mohammed bin Nayef was already extremely powerful before becoming first crown prince, and he made his name as the man who would defeat terrorism and al-Qaeda. He is known for taking a hard line, and that will likely continue, particularly with the kingdom now involved in a major war in Yemen,” said Toby Matthiesen, author of The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism.
While bin Nayef is a familiar figure both within the kingdom and in Western countries for his role in quashing an alleged al-Qaeda uprising and leading Saudi policy in Syria, the second in line, Mohammed bin Salman, was comparatively unknown until four months ago.
Dubbed “Saudi’s Golden Boy”, the young bin Salman, who had only served as head of his father’s court, was virtually a stranger to the Saudi public and has relatively little experience with the kingdom’s foreign partners. As one of the kingdom’s youngest leaders – he is believed to be in his early 30s – bin Salman was appointed defence minister by his reigning father and has steadily become the face of Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen.
“[He] may be young, but he is capturing the imagination of Saudis who seek strong leadership and a role in regional affairs. As defence minister, the deputy crown prince will be front and centre in building his capacity as a defence leader. Syria and Libya will likely be under his portfolio in terms of future military missions and objectives,” said Theodore Karasik, a Gulf-based analyst of regional geopolitical affairs.
In a show of support late on Wednesday, Saudi state television showed members of the royal family, including Muqrin, gathering at the royal court to pledge allegiance to the new crown prince and his deputy.
The royal shake-up comes as the US-allied Gulf monarchy faces a number of challenges, including creating millions of jobs for its mostly young population, low oil prices that have resulted in the country digging deep into its financial reserves, and security threats both internally from rebel groups and externally along its borders with Iraq and Yemen.
Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center in Washington, told Al Jazeera that a shift from royal to civilian appointment in the foreign office is not necessarily indicative of any shift in Saudi’s foreign policy.
“Al-Jubeir represents the new generation of Arab diplomats. His appointment does not necessarily represent a shift in the international relations of the kingdom as much as a generational shift in the leadership. King Salman opted to take advantage of the new diplomatic talent available to him to advance the interests of the kingdom,” Jahshan told Al Jazeera.
Jubeir has served as the Saudi ambassador to the US since 2007, and will become the second civilian to ever take on the role of foreign minister.
Saudi Arabia continues to lock itself in bloody wars in Yemen and Syria as it looks to counter the influence of its long-standing regional rival, Iran. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei argued earlier this month that Saudi’s traditional cautious foreign policy was being hijacked “by a number of inexperienced young people who want to show savagery instead of patience and self-restraint”.
Analysts say the coming few years will likely see more of the new assertive and interventionist policies, compared to the back-room diplomacy preferred by the kingdom’s past monarchs.
“Riyadh will be hitting harder and faster, working with allies and making trouble for its enemies,” Karasik said. “The point is that the new generation of Saudi leaders are more assertive and willing to voice their opinions, not just through voice but through action.”