t is arguably the world’s most powerful monarchy, but the House of Saud is becoming something of a meritocracy, too. The far-reaching reshuffle approved by King Salman this week speeds up Saudi Arabia’s transition to a new generation of leaders. It provides an injection of professionalism and youth in a kingdom that, while not under immediate threat, faces challenges that need skilful handling.
Top of the list is an assertive Iran, adept at manipulating conflict and building influence in the Arab world, which has deepened the Shia-Sunni divide. Shia-dominated ruling factions in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are now more responsive to Tehran than to Sunni Riyadh. In Yemen the takeover by the Houthis, who practice a version of Shia Islam and enjoy Iranian support, rattled the Saudis and led them to launch a bombing campaign.
That is the fiery backdrop to the elevation of Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, who becomes crown prince after a decade’s sure handling of the terror threat. As security and then interior minister, he professionalised the internal security service after a series of deadly attacks in the kingdom, and built intelligence partnerships with the US and UK.
Al-Qaeda has repeatedly tried to kill him; in 2009 a supposed peace envoy exploded a device strapped to his thigh while sitting on a sofa next to the prince. Miraculously, only the bomber was killed; his family received a message of condolence from his intended victim.
The new deputy crown prince is Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s youngest son. Less well known, and in his early thirties, he was already defence minister and chair of one of two decision-making bodies set up by the king on his accession three months ago (Mohammed bin Nayef chairs the other). But Mohammed bin Salman has stepped down as head of the royal court; and, in a move asserting Mohammed bin Nayef’s leading position, the courts of king and crown prince have been merged into a single power centre. The line of succession is now clear, and King Salman is unlikely to change it again.
Saudi appointments these days reflect ability as well as lineage. Former Crown Prince Muqrin was close to the late King Abdullah but he lacked the authority for the top job and has been moved aside. Only the most effective princes now become ministers or governors of the main provinces. Three of the six most powerful ministries — foreign affairs, oil and finance — are in the hands of western-educated professionals who are not royals. Their influence is growing.
The failure of the so-called Arab spring has reinforced for many Arabs that the choice they face for now is not between autocracy and democracy, but between order and disorder. Adel al-Jubeir, the new foreign minister, was a trusted adviser to King Abdullah. As ambassador to Washington, he has been a vital element in the Saudi-US relationship. These appointments underline the centrality of that alliance.
A supposed envoy exploded a device strapped to his thigh while sitting on a sofa next to the crown prince
Both countries face a resurgent terrorist threat, with the brutal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) vying with al-Qaeda for the support of the disaffected. A self-styled caliphate seeking control of Mecca and Medina threatens Saudi Arabia more than America or Europe. Yet Washington and Riyadh do not always see eye to eye. While the Saudis have not opposed the US-led negotiations with Iran over their nuclear programme, they remain ambivalent about the results so far, and are anxious about the lifting of sanctions that have constrained Iran’s economic muscle.
With the oil price at half its level of a year ago, even Saudi finances are under pressure. The policy of maintaining Saudi production has been justified by events so far, with the burden of balancing supply and demand falling on higher-cost producers in the US and elsewhere. Still, the International Monetary Fund says that funding the current Saudi budget requires an oil price of about $106 a barrel; there will have to be savings. Meaningful jobs for graduates, many from western universities, require a more diverse economy.
Perhaps the hardest questions for the new leadership concern social and political reforms. Easing constraints on women and on social interaction, widening consultation, reducing the baleful influence of the religious police, and ending judicial punishments such as beatings that the west condemns — all are badly needed. But in a conservative society, change will be controversial.
We are already seeing a different approach to regional politics under King Salman. The attitude to the Muslim Brotherhood has softened, to the consternation of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president who ousted it in 2013 and has allowed them no political space since. With Turkey, Riyadh is trying to forge a more effective effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. The Saudis have worked to bridge differences between smaller Gulf states, focused on attitudes to political Islam. Saudi policy once turned on ideology and personal relations. Now it is driven by a hard-nosed calculation of where its interests lie.
Easing the Sunni-Shia rift would take a rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran, and a sharp change in Iranian behaviour. But across the region there are signs of change. Opportunities will open up. Saudi Arabia is equipping itself with leaders that have the skills and experience to seize them.