Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been named prime minister, a post traditionally held by the king, in a government shuffle announced on Tuesday.
The move effectively formalises power already wielded by Prince Mohammed, who has been the kingdom’s de facto ruler for several years, analysts said.
The heads of other critical ministries, including interior, foreign and energy, remained in place, according to a royal decree from King Salman published by the official Saudi Press Agency.
Prince Mohammed, who turned 37 last month, has been first in line to succeed his father as king since 2017.
Saudi Arabia has for years sought to quell speculation over the health of the 86-year-old king, who has ruled the world’s top oil exporter since 2015.
In 2017, it dismissed reports and mounting speculation that the king was planning to abdicate in favour of Prince Mohammed.
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King Salman has been hospitalised twice this year, most recently a one-week stay in May that involved tests including a colonoscopy, according to state media.
According to experts, Mohammed bin Salman’s announcement as prime minister of Saudi Arabia would probably shield the crown prince from a potentially damaging lawsuit in the US in connection to his alleged role in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The decision was seen by critics of the Saudi government as almost certainly linked to a looming court-ordered deadline next week. The Biden administration had been asked by a US judge to weigh in on whether Prince Mohammed ought to be protected by sovereign immunity in a case brought by the fiancee of Khashoggi, Hatice Cengiz. Such protection is usually granted to a world leader, such as a prime minister or a king.
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In July the administration sought a delay in filing its response to the court, which had initially been sought by 1 August. John Bates, a district court judge, agreed to extend the deadline to 3 October. Among other issues, he called on the administration to state whether it believed Prince Mohammed ought to be granted immunity under rules that protect countries’ head of state.
“It seems like [Prince Mohammed] has been advised to take this step before the response of the Biden administration was due on 3 October,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, the Gulf director at Dawn, a pro-democracy group based in Washington, who is a party to the Khashoggi lawsuit. “Practically, [becoming prime minister] makes no difference.”
The White House did not immediately comment. Prince Mohammed has denied he had personal involvement in the Khashoggi murder. A US intelligence assessment found that the future king was likely to have ordered the killing.
The decision to name Prince Mohammed as prime minister would also likely assuage any lingering concerns in Saudi Arabia that the crown prince could be arrested or otherwise face legal challenges while traveling abroad.
The civil complaint against Prince Mohammed, which was filed by Cengiz in the federal district court of Washington DC in October 2020, alleges that he and other Saudi officials acted in a “conspiracy and with premeditation” when Saudi agents kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured and killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Khashoggi, a former Saudi insider who had fled the kingdom and was a resident of Virginia in the south-east US, was a vocal critic of the crown prince and was actively seeking to counter Saudi online propaganda at the time when he was killed.
Cengiz said in a statement to the Guardian: “The fight for justice must succeed – it will not be stopped because MBS bestows another title on himself.”
Critics of the Saudi regime, including activists who are living in exile in the US and Europe, have warned that the crown prince’s crackdown on dissent has intensified in recent months.
The UK government has sought to intervene in at least one high-profile case, involving Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University PhD student who was arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced to 34 years in prison after she returned home from the UK for a holiday. Her crime, under Saudi law, was using Twitter to follow and sometimes like or retweet tweets by dissidents and activists.
The Guardian was told by a source requesting anonymity that officials in the British embassy in Riyadh have raised concerns about Shehab’s case with Saudi authorities. Tariq Ahmad, a Conservative peer, has also raised the case in a 25 August meeting with the Saudi ambassador to the UK, the source said.
The UK government will face more pressure to act this week with the expected release of a letter by 400 academics, including staff and research students from UK universities and colleges who are seeking urgent action on Shehab’s case.
The letter calls on Liz Truss, the prime minister, and foreign secretary James Cleverly to “publicly condemn Salma al-Shehab’s sentencing and make representations to their Saudi counterparts for her immediate release”. It was sponsored by the pro-democracy group Alqst, which advocates for human rights in Saudi Arabia. The group said: “Salma should be looking forward, like us, to the new academic year, instead of languishing behind bars for the ‘crime’ of tweeting her legitimate opinions.”
The letter notes that Shehab, a 34-year-old mother of two children who worked as a dental hygienist and had received a scholarship to study in the UK, was arrested on 15 January 2021 while on holiday in Saudi Arabia. Court records show she was placed in solitary confinement, questioned and held for 285 days before her trial. She denies the allegations against her.
Truss has so far not indicated that she will be likely to adopt a critical stance toward her new counterpart. The British prime minister had a phone call with Prince Mohammed this week in which her office said she thanked him for helping to get five British detainees released by Russian-backed forces. She also offered the UK’s “continued support and encouragement for progress in Saudi Arabia’s domestic reforms”.
– Sweeping changes –
Prince Mohammed became defence minister in 2015, a key step in a swift consolidation of power.
In that role he has overseen Saudi Arabia’s military activities in Yemen, where the kingdom leads a coalition backing the internationally recognised government in its fight against Iran-aligned Huthi rebels.
He has also become the public face of a sweeping reform agenda known as Vision 2030.
Changes have included granting women the right to drive, opening cinemas, welcoming foreign tourists, defanging the religious police and hosting pop stars and high-profile heavyweight fights and other sporting events.
Yet he has also jailed critics and, in a sweeping purge of the nation’s elite, detained and threatened some 200 princes and businessmen in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel in a 2017 anti-corruption crackdown that tightened his grip on power.
He gained global notoriety for the 2018 killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
Last year, US President Joe Biden declassified an intelligence report that found Prince Mohammed had approved the operation against Khashoggi, an assertion Saudi authorities deny.
But the spike in energy prices triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spurred a number of Western leaders to travel to Saudi Arabia to appeal for ramped-up oil production, notably then-UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Biden himself, who swallowed an earlier vow to make the Saudi leadership a “pariah”.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz became the latest major leader to visit the kingdom this past weekend.
– ‘Overdue’ step –
Making the crown prince prime minister is an unusual move, but it has happened before.
In the 1950s, Crown Prince Faisal al Saud became prime minister and assumed control of government operations, ultimately leading to a power struggle resulting in then-King Saud’s abdication.
This scenario is different, “formalising a de facto situation”, said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the government.
“It was overdue actually, since he has been CEO to the King’s chairman role for many years,” Shihabi said.
The crown prince “has already gone through the power struggle phase and won it over, so what’s happening now is more regularization of his authority,” said Umar Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the University of Birmingham.
The move could also resolve thorny questions related to protocol, given Prince Mohammed has for years been meeting heads of state even though his administrative rank has been defence minister, Karim said.
Prince Mohammed is being replaced as defence minister by his younger brother, Khalid bin Salman, who was deputy defence minister.
Prince Khalid’s promotion “formalizes the key role he has in any case been playing in the ministry since 2019, but also makes the changes look more like a cabinet reshuffle for presentational purposes,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the Baker Institute at Rice University.