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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Young Saudi Royals Rise as Kingdom Tries to Assert Regional Leadership - New monarch changes the line of succession

From The Wall Street Journal:

RIYADH—The Saudi monarchy’s overhaul of its aging leadership moves a younger generation of royals into position to reinvigorate the country at a time when it is trying to assert political and military leadership in the Middle East and reshape ties with the West.

In a kingdom where elderly and infirm monarchs made all major decisions for decades, the empowerment of younger members of the House of Saud is a significant departure. It has already translated into a surprisingly activist foreign policy that has asserted Saudi leadership of a Sunni Muslim bloc confronting mainly Shiite Iran. And it comes as oil-rich Saudi Arabia faces economic challenges at home brought on by the sharp fall in the price of crude.

Since assuming the throne after the death of his half-brother in January, King Salman has sought to put Saudi Arabia’s stamp on the Middle East.

The latest shake-up, announced in a royal decree on Wednesday, showed the new monarch was throwing his weight behind a more aggressive foreign policy that has deepened Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Syria’s war and brought together a coalition of Sunni Arab states now carrying out airstrikes against Iran-linked rebels who have overrun much of neighboring Yemen.

“In an era of U.S. retrenchment, they see a change on the ground and they feel they have to do this,” said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center think tank in Qatar. “They are leading at a time when the region is willing to follow.”

As part of a broad cabinet reshuffle, the king replaced his younger half-brother, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, as crown prince. He appointed his nephew, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who now becomes his new heir apparent.

The king appointed his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince, making him second in line to the throne. The prince, about 29 years old, has been serving as defense minister during the military campaign in Yemen.

King Salman also sidelined Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal. In his place, he tapped U.S. Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. Mr. Jubeir has become the kingdom’s public face in Washington, explaining the decision to begin airstrikes in Yemen.

Some analysts see in King Salman’s appointments an attempt to replace the U.S. as the pre-eminent military force in the region, as the Obama administration focuses on Asia and a rising China.

In recent months, the kingdom hasn’t been shy about using its wealth and military hardware to support friends and weaken foes. King Salman has made support for Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad a priority. He met in the Saudi capital of Riyadh last month with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said they agreed to boost support for the Syrian opposition.

“During King Abdullah, we did not have a foreign policy, and just watched events unfold in front of our eyes in Yemen,” said prominent Saudi sociologist and commentator Khalid al Dakhil. The new administration in Riyadh “is making the right choices” and has the will to follow through, he said.

The changes elevate at least two key officials with close ties to U.S. officials, and were welcomed by the Obama administration, which singled out new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in particular as a long-standing ally.

“Many American officials have worked very closely with Mohammed bin Nayef,” said Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said the move is a “very positive step,” citing Mr. Jubeir’s appointment as a key move. “They chose one of the most well-respected members of their government to have a very important job at a critical time. He’s a very good man who understands the world as it is,” Mr. Graham said in an interview. “I think this is a giant step in the right direction.”

The kingdom not only faces the challenge of trying to pick winners in the region’s conflicts. It is also trying to ride out a protracted slump in oil prices, which have put pressure on the budget of the world’s largest crude exporter and undermined its economic growth.

The Institute of International Finance, a trade body of global banks, predicts Saudi’s gross domestic product will slow to 2.7% in 2016 from 3% this year, largely as a result of lower oil prices.

To offset the slowing economy, the kingdom has sought to stir investor interest. In June, it will open the region’s biggest stock market to direct foreign investment. Riyadh may end up competing with Tehran for capital as well as influence, as Iran is moving toward a stock market opening of its own--if western sanctions are lifted in the wake of a nuclear deal.

Other challenges prompting the leadership changes include shifting demographics, analysts say. Some 46% of the kingdom’s estimated 27.3 million people are age 24 and under.

“There appears to have been an awareness that there was a significant generational gap between the senior leadership and the Saudi population at large,” said Fahad Nazer, a terrorism analyst at JTG Inc. and former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

“King Salman wants to inject some new blood into the cabinet while still retaining some more experienced veterans.”

The leadership changes come amid rising tensions in the region, stoked in part by Saudi Arabia’s campaign in neighboring Yemen.

Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival for power in the region, has sharply criticized Riyadh’s new approach to foreign policy.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei complained earlier this month that Saudi Arabia’s traditional caution in world affairs has been jettisoned by “inexperienced youngsters who want to show savagery instead of patience and self-restraint.”

Iran has yet to respond officially to Wednesday’s leadership changes, but Iranian analysts cast them as the result of divisions within the Saudi leadership and the slow progress of the air campaign in Yemen.

“These changes show strong differences inside the Saudi authorities, considering the Yemen war as well as inhumane attacks on the defenseless Yemeni people by the Saudis,” Tehran-based commentator Hassan Hanizadeh told state television on Wednesday. “This has caused a split among the rulers of Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi Arabia recently said it was moving to a new, mainly diplomatic phase after carrying out airstrikes in Yemen for a month. Regular strikes continued even after the announcement, however, targeting the Shiite-linked Houthi rebels who took over the government in Yemen in February.

Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia supports Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country after the Houthi rebels took charge.

Baligh Al Mikhlafi, the co-founder of Yemen’s National Rescue Alliance party and an aide to the exiled Mr. Hadi, said the Saudi campaign was getting bogged down in Yemen and that the country’s foreign policy needed fresh perspective.

“The threats facing Saudi are critical and they need young minds to ensure a successful foreign policy in Yemen,” he said. “Saudi needs the best anti-Houthi team they can get, and they did just that.”


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