Behind the Saudi Royal Shake-Up

King Salman is sending a message to the U.S. and to restive young Saudis flirting with joining Islamic State.

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 concubine.

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 Syria.

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).