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Shakeup in Saudi Arabia

King’s nephew is out; son is in

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman shook up his country just days ahead of the holiday that ends the month of fasting of Ramadan with the announcement that his son Mohammed bin Salman is now the crown prince and heir to the throne.

In a move that echoed the many tasks that President Trump has given his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Mohammed bin Salman, who many refer to by his initials MBS, was also named as deputy prime minister and will retain his post as defense minister. MBS, 32, replaces Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a 57-year-old nephew of the king, who was known and liked in Washington.

The King’s decree, which was confirmed by the Allegiance Council, removed all positions from Mohammed bin Nayef. It is not clear why the King orchestrated the shakeup.

“It may be that Salman is nervous about how long he will live and therefore moved to secure MBS’s position to become the next king,” Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center told The Media Line. “Even if Salman’s departure from the scene is not be imminent, he may want to ensure the succession is secure and help MBS consolidate his position while he (Salman) is still alive.”

The decision comes as Saudi Arabia is embroiled in a conflict in Yemen, where it is fighting a proxy war with Iran. The Kingdom was also involved in fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but as the war has ground on into a sixth year, Saudi Arabia has pulled back. Sayigh said that the appointment of MBS means the initiatives that he was responsible for, including the war in Yemen and a move to float the state-owned oil company on the international stock market.

The shakeup in Saudi Arabia is being carefully watched around the region. Iran’s State TV called it a “soft coup”, and analysts said Iran is worried that MBS could pursue a more aggressive policy against Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran are currently fighting to be the regional superpower in the Middle East.

In Israel, there was less concern, especially amid rumors that MBS has held several semi-secret meetings with Israeli officials. Communications Minister Ayoub Kara welcomed the move.

“Salman’s appointment means more economic cooperation in the Middle East, and not just regarding oil,” Kara says in a statement. “The strengthening of relations with the Trump government is the beginning of a new and optimistic time between Saudi Arabia and regional states, including Israel and the Jewish people.”

It is not clear if there will be major changes in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. Saudi Arabia is the leader of a bloc of countries, including the UAE and Bahrain, that control sizable oil resources. Most recently, they have all broken off ties with Qatar for its support of terrorism.

But, analysts say, Saudi Arabia has also had some foreign policy missteps.

“Its actions in Yemen and Qatar show a lack of political strategy, over-confidence in and over-reliance on its “hard” power including finances, military buildup, and US support under President Trump,” Sayigh said. “However there is clear evidence of its weaknesses in the same areas meaning a heavy drain on finances, an inefficient and oil-dependent economy, and an army that has shown middling performance at best.”