By Karen Elliott House
Wall Street Journal
May 1, 2015
Four months into his rule, Saudi King Salman
reshuffled the face cards in the Saudi royal deck this week. His most apparent
goal is to placate multiple domestic constituencies, from frustrated youths to
religious fundamentalists. But the larger and more important messages are
regional and international.
The king elevated two hard-line royal
relatives. His 55-year-old nephew, Muhammad bin Nayef, was made crown prince,
and his 30-year-old son, Muhammad bin Salman, was named deputy crown prince. The
appointments serve notice that Saudi Arabia will continue to pursue an assertive
foreign policy in the Middle East aimed at blocking Iranian hegemony.
The king is also telling an Obama
administration no longer trusted by the Saudis—given the president’s lust
for a nuclear deal with Iran—that Saudi Arabia increasingly will make its own
way in the world. In short, the Saudis, like the Israelis, have given up on this
American administration—though not yet on America.
Indeed, by naming Saudi ambassador Adel al
Jubeir as the kingdom’s new foreign minister, King Salman is fielding a strong
team of experts on America in Mr. al Jubeir and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Jayef.
They can be expected to go all-out in lobbying Congress, the Pentagon and other
U.S. power centers to show stronger support for Saudi Arabia even as President
Obama courts Iran.
The crown prince, who is also Interior
minister, has been working with the U.S. since 2001 on antiterrorism issues. He
and Mr. al Jubeir, ambassador to the U.S. since 2007, are well respected in
Washington. Elevating this duo to manage Saudi foreign policy with the U.S. is
not unlike Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s run around the
president to speak to Congress.
The king’s removal of his half-brother
Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as crown prince and next in line of succession isn’t
surprising, but the timing is. Prince Muqrin, 69, the youngest of the sons of
King Abdul Aziz who have ruled Saudi Arabia since their father’s death in
1953, had long been said to be an unlikely king because his mother was a Yemeni
But his abrupt removal—with the king’s
nephew installed as the new heir to the throne, and his relatively young son as
second in line—was a shock to many Saudis accustomed to the House of Saud’s
respect for age. Such overt nepotism was also surprising—no other Saudi king
since the death of Abdul Aziz has put his own son in direct line for the throne.
The new deputy crown prince is the eldest son
of King Salman’s third and favorite wife, who seems to have succeeded at
positioning her son ahead of the king’s numerous older, more experienced sons.
In 2009, Prince Muhammad began service as chief aide to his father, then the
governor of Riyadh. During an interview I had with his father at that time,
Prince Muhammad—then in his mid-20s—displayed an easy manner and even broke
in with a joke at one point, displaying a rare informality between Saudi royals
and their sons—at least in public.
While new Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef is
widely respected as a seasoned and hardworking royal, the new deputy crown
prince is more controversial. Some Saudis see him as too young and
inexperienced. As defense minister, he is leading the current Saudi bombing
campaign in Yemen—an immediate test of his leadership. If the effort succeeds,
which is far from certain, it will help establish his reputation.
The first test of this new Saudi leadership
team will come in two weeks, when Mr. Obama hosts a summit of the Gulf
Cooperation Council, or GCC, a collection of small Gulf countries plus Saudi
Arabia, that Riyadh is seeking to lead in combating Iran’s Middle East
expansion. The Saudis still hope to persuade Washington to be more active in the
fight not just against Islamic State forces but also against Bashar Assad in
Mr. Obama seems to see the summit as simply an
opportunity to encourage these nations to fend for themselves, showing U.S.
concern for their security without offering concrete action. As Saudis point
out, there is a chasm between Mr. Obama’s words and actions—as seen in his
unilateral erasing of the “red line” he declared regarding Mr. Assad’s use
of chemical weapons in Syria.
Domestically, King Salman’s move last week
seemed an acknowledgment that something must be done to appease frustrated young
Saudis, all too many of whom are jobless or underemployed. Some 60% of Saudis
are under age 20, and the Saudi Interior ministry estimates that more than 2,000
have joined Islamic State.
By pushing the young royal leadership to the
fore, King Salman is signaling that their generation is gaining power—an
important message when Islamic State is targeting young religious Saudis by
arguing that the royal family is corrupt and more concerned with earthly perks
than with attaining paradise. Whether deliberate or not, the appointment of a
nonroyal to the high rank of foreign minister will encourage restive Saudis
studying at home and the 200,000 abroad that they have a future if they work
hard and be patient.
Finally, in sacking Noura al Faiz as deputy
education minister last week, King Salman ousted Saudi Arabia’s
highest-ranking female to please religious conservatives. King Abdullah, who
died in January, had sought to give women a greater role in the kingdom and to
reduce the role of the religious police in Saudis’ lives. King Salman,
confronted abroad with rising Iranian mischief and declining U.S. support, is
putting his faith in his young, assertive team to lead foreign policy, and in
placating the religious establishment at home to secure its continuing support
for Al Saud rule.
Ms. House a former publisher of The Wall
Street Journal who won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for her coverage of the
Middle East, is the author of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion,
Fault Lines—and Future” (Knopf, 2012).