The pattern of Saudi power shifts as the ‘MBS cohort’ of royals emerges

King Salman has made some 30 appointments of royals to positions of authority in the past two years – pointing to the emergence of a younger generation of Al-Saud, most often drawn from branches of the family favoured by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. According to GSN’s analysis of recent appointments, a major generational and institutional shift is under way

Some 30 Al-Saud princes – and one princess – have been appointed to positions of authority by King Salman Bin Abdelaziz since 2017. The appointments have come in waves: 22 in 2017 (GSN 1,041/6), seven in 2018 (GSN 1,072/11,061/61,055/1) and four in spring 2019 (GSN 1,075/1). Many are notably young, in a system that has traditionally not favoured youth, and are drawn from the same cohort as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS).

Among them are Saudi Arabian National Guard (Sang) minister Prince Abdullah Bin Bandar, culture minister Prince Badr Bin Abdullah and interior minister Prince Abdelaziz Bin Saud Bin Nayef. All were born in the early- to mid-1980s. Their appointment reflects MBS’s desire to have young people in government and around him.

Some of the appointees were, of course, already in government, with long track records, such as Prince Sultan Bin Salman who heads the new Saudi Space Agency (SSA). Some were more obscure with no apparent experience. This is particularly the case for deputy governorship office holders, whose roles were in part designed to begin careers in administration.

Some analysts still argue it is normal and to be expected for Al-Saud to take up high-level jobs, but the pattern of Al-Salman appointments is in marked contrast to what has gone before. Governorships changed hands only a handful of times under King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz, mainly due to the incumbent dying. Abdullah waited four years to carry out his first major cabinet reshuffle, which took place in early 2009 (GSN 848/1). Under Abdullah his half-brothers kept the key portfolios, often for decades; these developed into fiefdoms, such as Prince Sultan’s hold over the Ministry of Defence and Aviation for over 40 years or his Sudairi (or Sudeiri) full-brother Prince Nayef, who held the Ministry of Interior from 1975 to 2012.

As GSN has noted before, King Salman’s appointments may go some way towards placating family members unhappy with the rapid changes imposed under his rule, MBS’s relentless promotion and highly contentious issues such as the war in Yemen, the Ritz-Carlton arrests of November 2017 and the murder last October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Several analysts argue that most recent appointments have been attempts to compensate branches of the family whose senior members were removed from their jobs, fired or arrested. “MBS gives jobs to their younger brothers, sons, nephews etc in the hope of winning their loyalty – but I doubt whether this will be sufficient to offset the real hate with which he must be regarded by the humiliated relations,” a veteran observer of the Al-Saud told GSN. He added that a subtext to the appointments was Al-Salman efforts to win over parts of the family, to compensate them, and to isolate other parts.

Others note that the appointment of princes to provincial governorships is “normal and expedient”, and it would be an insult to a province to appoint anyone else. An academic source observed that the king “believes that administrative duties or ‘authority’ should by necessity be in the family’s hands”. He argued that “this is nothing new and while the numbers fell back a few years ago after commoners received various posts… established norms dictate that Al-Saud offspring must always have the priority to govern.” He put this down to two main reasons: their higher education levels and the family’s need to remain in close contact with the masses.

Al-Salman in pole position

It is no surprise that the Al-Salman are in a strong position, with six of the king’s sons holding positions of prominence. MBS’s full-brother Prince Khalid Bin Salman was appointed deputy defence minister in February 2019, after his time as ambassador to Washington ended amid considerable intrigue (GSN 1,076/3).

Three of MBS’s older half-brothers hold senior positions: respected veteran Prince Abdelaziz Bin Salman as state minister for energy, Prince Sultan at SSA (GSN 1,079/7) and Prince Faisal Bin Salman, Medina governor for several years (GSN 1,012/1). MBS’s relationship with his older brothers is the subject of some speculation. One source said they are believed not to have spent much time together due to the age gap – and hence MBS doesn’t trust them. But at least one observer foresees a crucial role for Faisal: the academic source noted that “he has been given a rare opportunity to cajole the clergy – he will emerge as one of his brother’s most important allies. MBS is taming the clerical establishment who are keeping quiet for now and [he] will rely on his older half-brother to do his part in weeding out trouble-makers.”

Al-Abdullah squeezed out

The late King Abdullah’s sons keep a low profile. Former Riyadh governor Prince Turki Bin Abdullah and long-time Sang minister Prince Miteb were arrested in November 2017 in MBS’s ‘night of the long knives’ and investigated over their vast wealth and the financing of projects (GSN 1,050/11,049/31,048/1). While Miteb was eventually released, Turki is still believed to be under house arrest.

Their brother former deputy foreign minister Prince Abdelaziz Bin Abdullah lives in Paris; he hasn’t been back since before 2017. Other siblings live in France and Monaco; they have refused to return despite rumoured attempted enticements. MBS is said to not have much sympathy for the Al-Abdullah after he felt he was humiliated by King Abdullah and the head of his royal court Khalid Al-Tuwaijri.

The children of King Salman’s youngest Sudairi brother, former interior minister Prince Ahmed Bin Abdelaziz, do not have positions but this may reflect their lack of interest or focus on business although one, Prince Nayef Bin Ahmed, has had a career in the army/defence sector. At one time some saw Prince Ahmed as a rival to Al-Salman domination of political life, but he returned to the kingdom in late October following Khashoggi’s death (GSN 1,002/5).

Those doing better

Descendants of former Crown Prince Sultan have fared better, with four appointments in the last year alone. They now hold the Mecca deputy governorship, ambassadorships to the United States, United Kingdom and Austria, and the Northern Borders and Al-Jouf governor positions.

Others with notable elevations include descendants of Prince Bandar Bin Abdelaziz. His son Prince Faisal has served as Riyadh governor since 2015 (GSN 996/8). Prince Khalid Bin Bandar has enjoyed a long career and is an advisor to King Salman, while Prince Turki is Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) commander since February 2018, Prince Abdullah is Sang minister and Prince Bandar Bin Faisal Bin Bandar has a senior position at the General Intelligence Directorate.

The role of the family’s junior (or cadet) branches has diminished over the years – more usually being reduced to mostly ceremonial positions – as King Abdelaziz (Ibn Saud)’s descendants came of age (see GSN Special Issue 866 for more analysis of this trend). When under King Salman, the Northern Borders governorship passed to Prince Faisal, son of former deputy defence minister Khalid Bin Sultan, it represented the first time in decades the province was governed by the main branch of the ruling family; it had been held since the 1950s by members of the Jiluwi branch (GSN 997/7) and before that by Sudairis.

Some cadets have been promoted

Of the more prominent cadet branch officials, the current Najran governor is a Jiluwi, the brother of another famous governor. And two prominent princes – culture minister Prince Badr Bin Abdullah and newly appointed ambassador Prince Faisal – come from the family’s distant Farhan branch. The academic source observed that “most among the junior and cadet branch princes are anxious to join the MBS bandwagon, for they have everything to gain by associating themselves to the future king.”

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