Saudi Arabia

With late-night decrees, Saudi King Salman dumps top military commanders, consolidating crown prince’s power

The major shake-up of the Saudi military, including removal of the kingdom’s ground and air forces, comes as Prince Mohammed bin Salman pursues military reform

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2018, 10:19am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2018, 9:43pm

Saudi Arabia has replaced its military chief of staff and other defence officials in a shake-up apparently aimed at overhauling its Defence Ministry during the stalemated and ruinous war in Yemen.

The kingdom also announced a new female deputy minister of labour and social development as it tries to broaden the role of women in the workplace.

Saudi Arabia made the announcement Tuesday in a flurry of royal decrees carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

As with many announcements in the ultra-conservative Sunni kingdom, it was short on details.

King Salman “approved the document on developing the Ministry of Defence, including the vision and strategy of the ministry’s developing programme, the operational pattern targeting its development, the organisational structure, governance and human resources requirements,” one statement said.

That restructuring was part of a “multiyear effort,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan, a senior adviser at the Saudi embassy in Washington, wrote on Twitter.

Prominent among the personnel changes was the firing of military chief of staff General Abdulrahman bin Saleh al-Bunyan. Another announcement said the general would become a consultant to the royal court.

Al-Bunyan was replaced by General Fayyadh bin Hamid al-Rwaili, who once had been the commander of the Royal Saudi Air Force, among the nation’s premier military forces.

Also appointed as an assistant defence minister was Khaled bin Hussain al-Biyari, the CEO of the publicly traded mobile phone and internet service provider Saudi Telecom Co.

The decisions come as the Saudi-led coalition, chiefly backed by the United Arab Emirates, remains mired in a stalemate in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country.

Over 10,000 people have been killed in the war in which Saudi-led forces back Yemen’s internationally recognised government against Shiite rebels and their allies who are holding the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and much of the north of the country.

The kingdom faces wide international criticism for its air strikes killing civilians and striking markets, hospitals and other civilian targets. Aid groups also blame a Saudi-led blockade of Yemen for pushing the country to the brink of famine.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to the throne after his father King Salman, is the Saudi defence minister and architect of the Yemen war.

While the crown prince has burnished his reputation abroad with promises of business-friendly reforms and other pledges, his role in Yemen haunts that carefully considered public personae.

But the overhaul in the Saudi defence forces should not be seen only as a reaction to the Yemen war, said Becca Wasser, a Washington-based RAND Corp. analyst specialising in Gulf security who has travelled to Saudi Arabia in the past.

The war in Yemen functions “to push these reforms forward, but it’s not the driver,” Wasser said.

In general, Wasser said such an overhaul would include improving training and recruitment of troops, allocating better resources and changing a military’s leadership to one willing to hear new ideas and make changes.

Also noticeable was an effort to include a “careful balancing” of appointments of others in the Al Saud royal family, said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University

“It seems the Saudi shake-up is more about moving forward with Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to put in place a new generation of leadership in tune with his vision to transform the structure of Saudi decision making,” Ulrichsen said.

The appointment of a woman in a ministerial position, Tamadhir bint Yosif al-Rammah as deputy minister of labour and social development, comes as the kingdom prepares to allow women to drive this year and pushes to have more women in Saudi workplaces.

Also appointed was Prince Turki bin Talal Al Saud as deputy governor of the Asir region.

The prince’s brother is billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who recently was detained for months at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh as part of what the government described as an anti-corruption campaign.

As with the anti-corruption purge, Wasser said the military overhaul also fit into the consolidation of power by Crown Prince Mohammed.

“Reform is a tricky thing to do. To create change in a larger bureaucratic structure like a military is difficult. To create change in Saudi Arabia … is incredibly difficult,” she said.

“It is not going to be easy and change is not going to happen tomorrow. This is much more of a long-term endeavour.”