Saudi Arabia’s Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud shook up his top leadership on Wednesday, state media reported, in moves that saw the kingdom’s heir apparent and foreign minister replaced.
Salman, who became king in January after the death of his older brother, Abdullah, named his nephew Muhammad bin Nayef crown prince in place of Prince Muqrin, the former intelligence chief.
If he ascends the throne, Muhammad would be the first Saudi king from the second generation of princes. All monarchs so far have been sons of the modern kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saud.
Muhammad currently serves as interior minister. He is considered a hardliner but also incorruptible. He oversees the military campaign in neighboring Yemen where Saudi Arabia carries out airstrikes against Shia rebels who are supported by its nemesis, Iran.
Salman also sacked Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud who has served as the desert kingdom’s top diplomat for forty years. He is succeeded by the current ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir — a commoner.
High political appointments seldom go to Saudis from outside the royal family.
Jubeir was a top foreign policy advisor to the previous king. His promotion may be a sign that Salman seeks to reinvigorate the Saudi relationship with its decades-old ally, America, at a time of great upheaval in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia worries that the United States may be willing to overlook or acquiesce in recent strategic gains made by Iran in order to get a deal that would stop the Shia state from developing nuclear weapons.
The Sunni-led kingdom is involved in several proxy wars with Iran. Besides Yemen, the two back opposing sides in Lebanon and Syria while Saudi Arabia is apprehensive about Iran’s growing influence in Iraq. The former has taken a leading role there in pushing back the Islamist insurgent groups that calls itself the Islamic State.
The Reuters news agency reported in 2013 that Saudi princes were horrified to see President Barack Obama reach out to Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s newly-elected president who is seen as relatively moderate in the West.
Obama’s negotiators have tried to keep the nuclear dossier separate from other issues but the threat of the Islamic State, which is also active in Syria, has made that more difficult. Iran and the United States are de facto allies against it but do not coordinate their efforts.
Saudi Arabia was previously alarmed when Obama withdrew his support from Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, another Sunni ally, in 2011 and stepped back from involving America in Syria’s civil war in 2013.
Previous disagreements, over America’s recognition of Israel in 1948 and the 2003 Iraq War, did not lead to a serious breach in bilateral relations. Saudi Arabia still depends on the United States for its security and no other great power is able or willing to take its place. Although America is becoming energy independent, Saudi Arabia remains highly relevant to its economy as the world’s largest and pivotal oil exporter. It also uses Saudi military bases to support operations across the region.
On Wednesday, Salman also replaced his economy, health and labor ministers as well as the chairman of the state energy company, Saudi Aramco.