February 5, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia: The New Power Structure

• King Salman has confirmed his reputation as a religious conservative through the reappointment of traditionalist clerics

• However he has also made some effort to streamline the Saudi government

• Recent changes have given considerable power to two men from the next generation: King Salman’s son and his nephew

• The result may be good for hard security measures, but less certain for the soft measures necessary for Saudi Arabia to weather the storm.


The changes that King Salman has so far made at the senior levels of his government suggest that social reform will not be high on his agenda. In fact, efforts by his predecessor to inch Saudi Arabia towards greater social inclusion may be allowed to wither and die. Religious conservatives, including several removed by the late King Abdullah, have gotten their jobs back, and at first sight, the focus of the government seems to be on hard security rather than on a longer term policy to undermine the causes of extremism.

Saudi Arabia is a pivotal country in the Middle East, and in the Arab world more broadly. Where it leads, others will follow, and increasingly other states see it as the key to the future of the region. This is a weighty burden for a country that is empowered by the strength of its currency rather than that of its structures. While many able bureaucrats have found their way up the system, the most senior positions have been held more as a consequence of birth than of ability. Furthermore, the strictly hierarchical nature of government has meant that any decision of importance must come from the top. Not only does this system cause bottlenecks that slow the process of government, but it also works to dampen—if not suffocate—initiative and innovation.

King Salman may be attempting to address some of these problems, including trimming bureaucratic fat, by merging ministries and bringing some rationale to the many cabinet committees that exist. He has established two new bodies, the Committee for Economic and Development Affairs and the Committee for Political and Security Affairs. Between them, the two committees bring together almost all government ministries with the intention, no doubt, of ensuring complementarity and policy coherence in their work.

At the same time, however, the changes have concentrated a huge amount of power in the hands of just two men, both of whom are members of the next generation: Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s eldest son by this third wife, who is to chair the Committee for Economic and Development Affairs, and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the king’s nephew and second-in-line to the throne, who is to chair the Committee for Political and Security Affairs, of which his cousin may also be a member as Minister of Defense. Given the size of their portfolios, much power will also accrete to whomever they appoint as their deputies.

The Saudi royal family has plenty of skills, and many of its members have a good understanding of how the world works. However, the instinct of its older members is towards conservatism and nostalgia rather than an energetic pursuit of new opportunities and managing the attendant risk. Paradoxically though, the kingdom faces increasing risks, some of its own making and some that are not, but none that will be solved by nostalgia. The main risk being that most of the region is in turmoil with little chance that when the dust settles things will bear much resemblance to how they were.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef has a great deal of experience in the internal security sector and his selection of a trusted aid, General Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, to head the Saudi external intelligence service, extends his reach. Significantly this will bring to an end the conflict that has often arisen in the kingdom between internal and external policies towards extremists. Prince Mohammed will also have oversight of government policy towards Yemen and Iran, the first of which he knows very well, and the second of which is critical to the region’s future.

But the longer term stability and development of Saudi Arabia will depend more on the other side of the house. Key issues such as education, youth, finance, and extraction will fall to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who at 35 is relatively young and untested to hold such power. It is highly likely that the king will encourage him to preserve at all costs the Wahhabist nature of the kingdom, as Salman himself was earlier much engaged in promoting Wahhabism through his charities. This is where risk and opportunity diverge. There is a far greater risk in perpetuating the narrowness of hardcore religious conservatism than in taking the opportunity to push forward in a new direction.


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