Saudi Arabian King Salman reshuffled his cabinet Wednesday, appointing a new heir to the throne, empowering a coterie of younger Saudi officials — and signaling that he’s ready to step up Riyadh’s push to counter Iran’s rising influence across the Middle East.
The reorganization comes amid heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and Tehran, with Riyadh conducting an ongoing military offensive against the Houthi rebels in Yemen whom it views as an Iranian proxy. Since succeeding the late King Abdullah in January, Salman has signaled that he plans to pursue a more assertive foreign policy designed, in large part, to ensure that Iran is unable to undermine Saudi influence across the Arabian Peninsula.
Wednesday’s appointments appear to strengthen the officials that have helped to promulgate that policy. Salman tapped his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, left, the country’s powerful interior minister, as Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, replacing the current ruler’s half-brother, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, right, an ally of the former monarch. Nayef, 55, will continue to serve as interior minister after the reshuffle.
Nayef has in recent years directed Saudi Arabia’s efforts to crack down on domestic extremists, especially al Qaeda, and is said to have stronger ties with the United States than any other member of the royal family. In 2009, he survived an al Qaeda assassination attempt.
Nayef’s appointment means that for the first time in Saudi Arabia’s history, a grandson of the kingdom’s founder — and not one of his sons — stands next in line for the throne.
Salman’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, above, was named to the role of deputy crown prince.
Bin Salman, who took over the role of defense minister in January, is thought to be in his early 30s. He will continue to serve as the top defense official, a post from which he has directed the month-long Saudi campaign in Yemen.
Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, 75, right, was also replaced Wednesday, when Salman named the the first non-royal, Washington Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, left, to the post. Faisal is said to have been in poor health, and reportedly asked to retire. He has led the Saudi Foreign Ministry since 1975.
With Faisal and Nayef, the new Saudi cabinet is likely to be friendlier toward Washington than that of Salman’s predecessor.
One move that is less easily explained is Salman’s removal of Nora al-Fayez, above, the most senior woman in Riyadh’s government, from her role as deputy minister for education of girls. The U.S-educated Fayez, who advocated for state-run sports programs for female students, was unpopular among religious conservatives, but was not known to have a poor relationship with Salman.