Saudi Cabinet Shuffle Could Be Prelude to Larger Challenges

Saudi Arabia’s commitment to keep oil markets amply supplied has been keeping a lid on prices this autumn, together with concerns about the health of the U.S. and global economy. What might have been considered a minor cabinet shuffle in the kingdom this week was largely ignored by oil traders, but perhaps mistakenly.

Earlier this week, ailing Saudi king Abdullah announced that his half-brother Interior Minister Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz would be replaced by Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, son of the long-standing former Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz who passed away in June. Prince Muhammad is seen as one of the most capable leaders in the kingdom and highly respected by U.S. government counterparts for his effectiveness in leading counterterrorism activities inside Saudi Arabia. Thus, the change might seem like good news in that the King is promoting a highly competent leader at a time of great challenge. The Interior Ministry is involved in many important activities not the least of which is dealing with rising internal risks such as preventing further cyber-attacks against the Saudi oil industry, quelling internal unrest in the Shia populated Eastern Province (where the vast proportion of Saudi Arabia’s oil production is situated), and discouraging the uncontrolled flow of young Saudi jihadists to fight the Assad regime in Syria.

But the promotion of Prince Muhammad is also historic in setting a new political precedent –one with the potential to upset the apple cart. With his elevation to Interior Minister, Prince Muhammad becomes the first leader of the Saudi royal family’s second generation to get a key Ministerial post. Prince Muhammad was previously serving as assistant interior minister under his father’s stewardship. The advancement of Prince Muhammad, instead of his older senior uncles, reopens the question of leadership succession at a time when both the reigning king and the crown prince are suffering from serious health issues. The promotion of a second generation prince whose seniority by age is less than other senior cousins and uncles could potentially bring an element of uncertainty into the leadership succession process, analysts say.

The continuity of Saudi oil policy is a mainstay to oil market stability in times of market disruption or regional conflict. A shift to a merit-based ordering of senior royal family members into key government posts would likely be welcomed by the kingdom’s Western allies but not necessarily inside all factions of the royal family itself.  It opens a new wrinkle to the question of future Saudi policy.