A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Thoughts on the Latest Saudi Reshuffle

The latest Saudi Cabinet reshuffle over the weekend included  the replacement of powerful Petroleum Minister‘Ali al-Na‘imi, and the realignment of several other ministries, and serves as a reminder of just how much things have changed under the ascendancy of Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. The 80-year-old Na‘imi had had disagreements with Muhammad in Salman (or MbS as he's sometimes referred to) and had held the position for 20 years. The oil experts can debate what the change means for energy policies, but the change underscores just how unusual a change in the Oil Ministry has been: in the 54 years from 1962 (a decade before the rise in oil prices) until last Saturday, Saudi Arabia had six Kings (Sa‘ud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, ‘Abdullah, Salman), but only three Oil Ministers (Shaikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani, 1962-1986, Hisham Nazer, 1986-1995, and ‘Ali Na‘imi, 1995-2016). The selection of Aramco President and CEO Khalid A. Al-Falih is no surprise, since that's the classic route to the Oil Minister's job, but it's indicative of how rare such changes are.

Khalid al-Falih
In fact, those of us who have followed the KSA for years have gotten used to the fact that barring death or serious illness, key posts in Saudi Arabia rarely change.  The late Foreign Minister Sa‘ud al-Faisal served from 1975 until 2015, a full 40 years, and when he stepped down for health reasons only a few weeks before his death, he was the world's longest-serving Foreign Minister. The late Prince Sultan, though admittedly a senior prince and full brother of King Fahd, held the Defense Ministry from 1963 until his death in 2011; Prince Nayef was Interior Minister from 1975-2012; the late King ‘Abdullah, before taking the throne, headed the National Guard from 1962 to 2010 and passed command to his son. Traditionally, "Cabinet reshuffle" in Saudi Arabia either meant changing the Deputy Minister of some obscure ministry or replacing somebody who died.

The rise of 30-year-old Muhammad bin Salman has turned much of the usual way of doing business in the KSA leadership on its head, and whether that's good or bad remains an open question.

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