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Saudi Arabia’s king just made a huge gambit

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King Salman’s dramatic shake-up of the Saudi cabinet ensures that his branch of the royal family controls the Kingdom into the foreseeable future.

But the move is risky as there is now no one to share the blame if things go badly.

Those political junkies who miss the “good old days” of the cold war, and especially the obscure and dark art of Kremlinology — the study of how the closed system of committees that ruled the Soviet Union functioned behind its very firmly closed doors — are once again reminded that present-day Saudi Arabian politics can more than feed their need for mystery and intrigue.

The process of Saudi decision-making at the highest level has been slightly clarified by the creation of the “Allegiance Council,” a committee of senior royals, a few years ago. But still, for the most part, those who say they know how Saudi decision-making works are plainly guessing at best, and those who actually do know won’t say.

But every now and then there are far-reaching and sudden changes that can be explained and interpreted with a fair degree of confidence. The royal reshuffle just engineered by the new King Salman is a useful case-in-point. His dramatic shakeup at the top of the Saudi pecking order has a strong, overriding significance and signification that are impossible to miss. He has placed his own Sudairi branch of the royal family in total control of the key posts at the apex of Saudi governance and, more important still, succession.

Unless there are further changes, which seems very unlikely at present, he has ensured Sudairi dominance in the Kingdom for countless decades into the future. This bold move has an obvious pay-off in terms of power and control. But it is also risky and, if things go badly, such a concentration of power could potentially risk the future power of that wing of the royal family rather than consolidating it.

King Salman has appointed his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to the post of deputy crown prince, having earlier elevated him to defense minister. This young man — estimates of his age run from 29 to 34 — was previously unknown outside of royal circles and has enjoyed a meteoric rise since his father’s accession to the throne a few months ago.

Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salmanvia VocativSaudi Arabian Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salman attends a briefing

He did not have much of a political or administrative career before becoming defense minister and does not seem to have been educated, or spent much time, in the West, or anywhere outside of Saudi Arabia for that matter.

He is, therefore, an unknown quantity to most observers and concerns about his sudden elevation to a key position in charge of the Saudi defense establishment at a very young age and without much experience were exacerbated by fears that he might have had a parochial upbringing without much exposure to the wider world. All of these concerns are naturally heightened now that he is second-in-line to the throne.

The fretting about Mohammed bin Salman was most evident in recent weeks regarding the Saudi-led Arab intervention in Yemen. Doubts about the strategic wisdom of the operation and the effectiveness of its operational tactics dovetailed with speculation about a youthful and enigmatic figure in charge of it all.

Some observers were plainly imagining a young zealot making rash and inexplicable decisions in a high-tech war room, as if playing with the world’s most elaborate video game, while professional officers and experienced administrators bit their lips and balled their fists while mumbling pained affirmations to his majesty.

This attitude was totally unfair, given that it is baseless, but it illustrates the extent to which Mohammed bin Salman was and is a mysterious figure.

We do not even know for sure how old he is, except that in the eyes of many in the West and beyond he is widely considered “too young” for the roles into which he has recent been catapulted. He will not remain an enigma for long, though, now that he represents the long-term future leadership of Saudi Arabia and the generation that will inherit the Kingdom soon enough.

Saudi Defence Minister, Prince Mohammad bin SalmanScreen grabSaudi Defence Minister, Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

There are, by contrasts, no real questions or doubts about his uncle, the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef. His age, for the record, is agreed by all to be 55. He replaces Prince Muqrin, who was widely considered to have been a “placeholder” for someone else all along. Many doubted that Muqrin would ever become king, and indeed he will not.

Mohammed bin Nayef is another Sudairi, and is very close to both the Americans and conservative factions in the Kingdom. He has made a practice out of being on good terms with as many constituencies as possible, which of course is the hallmark of any effective politician. The radical Islamists, though, do not like him since he was a tough and fairly effective Saudi counterterrorism czar. Indeed, they have made several efforts to assassinate him, especially a serious 2009 attempt on his life by al Qaeda.

Between them, Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman have been made leaders of the next two generations of Saudi royals and, barring mishap or misadventure, the next two kings. This means that Salman has arranged for many decades of Sudairi rule in the Kingdom. His wing of the family stands to dominate Saudi Arabia in an unprecedented manner — should all go well.

But the move is risky. There are many pressures that will confront the Saudi government in the coming years and decades that are obvious, and many more that we cannot now foresee. Terrorism and extremism, economic stress, uncertainty about the future of the oil market, sectarian tensions, chaotic borders with Iraq and Yemen, and much more are all going to take their toll on Saudi society.

Mohammed bin Nayef Saudi ArabiaREUTERS/Muhammad HamedSaudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz (L) attends a military parade which is held in preparation for the annual Haj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca September 28, 2014.

If any or several of these stressors are seen as getting out of control, there is now no one, even within the royal family, to share the blame. And it will be possible for other royals, in the context of a crisis, to argue within the court and with the general public that the concentration of power in Sudairi hands was somehow the proximate cause of the crisis and that reversing that is the preferred solution.

It’s possible that this will not impress those who might blame the system as a whole. But it’s also possible that this branch of the family might take the fall for the larger whole and find itself scapegoated and disempowered.

It’s also possible that Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman could find themselves at odds over various issues. Mohammed bin Nayef remains interior minister, which means he controls the National Guard, which is by far the most effective and professional of the Saudi armed forces. Mohammed bin Salman, as defense minister, has authority over the much larger, but usually reckoned to be much less competent, regular military forces.

In addition, the new crown prince had been the main player in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen policies, which is now no longer the case since the new deputy crown prince, as defense minister, is overseeing the ongoing intervention in that country. And, of course, since the crown prince is only 55, the deputy crown prince must be prepared for a long wait before he is likely to become king. This, too, could lead to some tensions and disputes.

Overall, King Salman’s move concentrates his own power and that of his Sudairi relatives for the foreseeable future. Other key positions — such as that of foreign minister, which will now be held by the long-serving ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir — are manned by non-royals who are much more easily controlled or overruled than some other royals might be.

Some risks are obvious and others will no doubt emerge over time. But King Salman’s determination to stamp his authority on his new kingdom is striking and unmistakable.