The diplomatic crisis ignited by the killing of Jamal Khashoggi has largely subsided, and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's grip on power is, if anything, even stronger than it was before (having faced down incipient challenges from one of his uncles). Which is why it's somewhat surprising to see MbS's ailing father, King Salman, order a limited cabinet reshuffle that moved around some of the key players in the scandal (including Adel al-Jubeir, who was one of the kingdom's key liaisons with western media during its response to Khashoggi's killing) and removed Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al Saud as the Kingdom's ambassador to the UK, according to Saudi State TV station Al-Arabiya.
Amid the reshuffle, the king ordered the creation of a new political and security council (presumably to help protect his chosen successor's flank) and - in a move that is reminiscent of a controversial decision made by President Trump this year - establishes a new Saudi space agency.
#BREAKING Saudi King Salman orders major Cabinet reshuffle— Nahayat Tizhoosh (@NahayatT) December 27, 2018
- Adel Al Jubeir relieved from position as Foreign Minister; named Minister of State for Foreign Affairs
- Ibrahim Alasssaf named as new Foreign Minister
- King also ordered formation of new political & security council pic.twitter.com/kA37Fw7C2z
As a result of the reshuffle, more liberals and progressives will move into positions of power, suggesting that it could be part of the Kingdom's plan to move ahead with its 'liberalizing' reforms to try and rehabilitate MbS's tarnished reputation as a reformer.
Women now have more positions in finance/trade ministry. Also, #SaudiArabia has announced the establishment of a national space agency.— 🗺 Nadia نادية 🗺 (@kutsuit) December 27, 2018
Today's cabinet reshuffle is a step in the right direction for Saudi Arabia. It'll help the country open up / liberalise faster IMO.
But perhaps the biggest change was apparent demotion of al-Jubeir to the lesser position of minister of state for foreign affairs and moving Ibrahim al-Assaf, formerly the kingdom's finance minister, to the foreign affairs role. Al-Jubeir played an important role in the Saudis PR response to the Khashoggi killing, and was seen as a stalwart supporter of the Crown Prince.
One RAND Corp analyst explained how three of the appointments, though unexpected, will help cement MbS's grip on power:
King Salman’s reshuffle of the Saudi cabinet has been expected given the fallout from the Khashoggi affair. But three changes in particular have implications for the security sector and stand out to me: https://t.co/o7SHeiOrjR— Becca Wasser (@becca_wasser) December 27, 2018
1/appointment of Abdullah bin Bandar, a "next-gen" prince close to MbS, to head the SANG. The move further reinforces MbS's control over a critical constituency. Worth watching whether the SANG is strengthened under Abdullah after being weakened by MbS as he consolidated power.— Becca Wasser (@becca_wasser) December 27, 2018
2/the appointment of Musaad Aiban, a long-time technocrat with a security file, to NSA. His experience may be a boon for MbS, who he will advise directly, particularly if he is tasked with Yemen or the slow-moving security reform project.— Becca Wasser (@becca_wasser) December 27, 2018
3/the reappointment of some of the old guard. This includes Ibrahim Assaf, detained during the Ritz crackdown. This suggests public messaging of “rehabilitation” but also an attempt to reestablish an internal system of checks & balances swept away by MbS’s power consolidation.— Becca Wasser (@becca_wasser) December 27, 2018
Here's a roundup of the most important moves:
- Ibrahim al-Assaf appointed as Foreign Minister
- Adel al-Jubeir appointed Minister of State for Foreign Affairs
- Gen. Khalid bin Qirar Al Harbi has been appointed as the head of general security.
- Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdul Aziz appointed Minister of National Guard
- Turki al-Shabbana appointed Minister of Media
- Hamad Al-Sheikh appointed Minister of Education
- Turki bin Talal has been appointed Governor of Asir in place of Faisal bin Khaled
- Sultan bin Salman moved from the presidency of the Tourism Authority and appointed Chairman of the Space Authority
- Badr bin Sultan has been replaced by Faisal bin Nawaf as Governor of Jouf region
- Musa'ad al-Aiban appointed as National Security Adviser
- Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal has replaced Turki al-Sheikh as president of Saudi's Sports Authority
- Turki Al-Sheikh has been appointed Chairman of the Entertainment Authority
- Khalid bin Qarar al-Harbi has been appointed the director of Public Security
- Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al Saud has been recalled as ambassador to the UK (notably after saying he was "concerned" about the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi)
But the implications of today's decision aside, there's one thing Saudi watchers should keep in mind.
For all the changes in Saudi Arabia today with the cabinet reshuffle, remember this. If and when MbS becomes king, he can just as easily dismiss the whole cabinet.— Dr H.A. Hellyer (@hahellyer) December 27, 2018