Saudi Arabia, which often confounds outsiders with its slow and opaque governance, has moved surprisingly quickly under King Salman, its new monarch, to streamline government and purge officials who were seen as underperformers.
The architect of the government shakeup has been Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s aggressive, Western-oriented, 34-year-old son, who has taken the positions of defense minister and chief of the royal court. He is said to have planned the succession moves carefully in the weeks before the death of King Abdullah on Jan. 23, and executed them quickly to check protests within the royal family.
The message, in simple terms, seems to be that the Saudi inner circle recognized that the kingdom was developing governance problems under its aging leadership and moved in a decisive, perhaps un-Saudi way to fix them. “I believe that this is the most important decision in the history of the Saudi state at its current stage,” argued Salman Aldossary, the editor of Asharq al-Awsat, the London-based Arabic newspaper owned by the new king’s family, in a column titled “Restructuring the Saudi State.”
The changes appear to deepen Saudi Arabia’s links with the United States and make it a more reliable security partner. One sign of continuity is that Adel al-Jubeir, who was King Abdullah’s trusted emissary in Washington, will remain as ambassador. Salman and his son seem to have balanced royal family equities enough to keep most princes happy, and to have forestalled dissent from any who aren’t.
By Saudi standards, the changes are sweeping. Mohammed bin Nayef, the 55-year-old interior minister and a close ally of the United States, was installed as third in line to the throne, behind Crown Prince Muqrin, 69. This decision was ratified the day after Abdullah’s death by the consultative Allegiance Council. It signaled royal family consensus that the coming generational transition will be led by Mohammed bin Nayef.
Salman’s reforms continued with a series of royal decrees issued last week that purged some senior princes and pruned the unwieldy Saudi bureaucracy. A dozen committees dealing with everything from the civil service to the disabled were abolished. In their place came two new super-councils with overarching authority: a panel overseeing political and security affairs, headed by Mohammed bin Nayef, and one managing economic and development affairs, run by Mohammed bin Salman.
The personnel changes removed a tier of Saudi leadership. Khaled al-Tuwaijri, who had become a prime minister of sorts as head of Abdullah’s court, was dumped. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to Washington, was sacked as head of the national security council, removing a mercurial personality who had caused consternation in both Washington and Riyadh. Two of Abdullah’s sons, Prince Turki and Prince Mishaal, were removed as governors of Riyadh and Mecca, respectively.
Mohammed bin Nayef’s control over Saudi intelligence was reinforced by the firing of Prince Khaled bin Bandar, who had struggled to improve the kingdom’s weak foreign spy service. He will be replaced by Gen. Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, a non-royal who had served as deputy chief of the Saudi version of the FBI and has close relations with the United States. This change seems intended to link Saudi external and internal intelligence better, and to improve the liaison of both services with Washington.
A final key area of reform is education. Two parallel education ministries were consolidated into one and put under the control of Azzam al-Dakhil, a technocrat with graduate degrees from the United States and Britain. Good leadership of education is seen as crucial in combating extremism among young Saudis.
The reform theme was underlined by Aldossary in his Asharq al-Awsat column. He argued that Salman had made “a quantum leap” by abolishing old committees and creating the two new supervisory councils, “limiting the bureaucracy that often plagues government work.” With the shakeup, he said, “what we hope for, and expect, is for the level of government services to improve, bit by bit, and for mistakes to decrease day by day.”
While many actions taken by the new Saudi regime do seem positive, a cautionary note: The kingdom is a big, young restless country with declining oil revenue to take care of its population, not to mention its turbulent neighbors. The appeal of Islamic extremism for some young Saudis is evident on social media. The Islamic State presents an adventurous, romantic and violent activism for those who crave involvement in the world.
The new Saudi leadership’s biggest challenge is to engage and motivate these youths. If that fails, the government reshuffle won’t make much difference.
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A clarification: In my Jan. 30 Washington Forum column: I cited an estimate by the Peterson Institute for International Economics that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would add about 600,000 U.S. jobs. Glenn Kessler, The Post’s “Fact Checker,” separately questioned this number, noting that it was based on an Obama administration calculation using a Peterson formula. Kessler is right. The case for free trade is strong enough that I didn’t need a shaky jobs number.