Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz is coming into his own, one week after becoming monarch. His generous hand-outs to large numbers of citizens — two months’ extra pay to all government employees and pensioners, and other recipients of government benefits, various charities and educational and cultural clubs — are aimed at boosting his popularity. He is dispensing these hand-outs, which will cost an eye-watering 110bn Saudi riyals ($29bn), even though the country’s oil export revenues, which provide around 80pc of budgetary income, will be significantly below last year’s, given that oil prices have lost around 60pc of their value since mid-2014.
Only a few days ago, the chief executive of state-owned Saudi Aramco, Khalid al-Falih, publicly advocated more careful spending, both within Aramco and in the country at large. But the king’s gesture is in keeping with traditional Arab culture of dispensing gifts to celebrate a happy occasion — in this instance, his accession to the throne.
Salman has also moved quickly to entrench his own position with a raft of senior appointment — and notable dismissals.
He has made two major new appointments at senior government level, which the pro-establishment media correctly point out constitute an injection of fresh young blood into the higher echelons of government. His own son, Mohammad bin Salman, whom he appointed defence minister only last week, now heads the newly-formed Council for Economic and Development Affairs, which has ultimate control over all economic affairs — including oil — education and social affairs.
The king has also reappointed another son — Abdul Aziz bin Salman — as deputy oil minister, and elevated his status to that of minister, although he does not have a specific portfolio. The move, which enhances Abdul Aziz’s status within the Saudi oil industry, could signal that he is being considered as a potential successor to the 79-year-old oil minister Ali Naimi once the latter retires.
By appointing his two sons to key economic positions and giving them a large degree of influence in the oil sector, Salman is consolidating his own control over the economic and oil sectors. And, by making education and social affairs part of the council’s remit alongside economics and oil, Salman is signalling that education and social affairs will have to take account of the country’s economic needs, possibly opening the way for cautious educational and social reforms.
The king is also signalling that he is serious about preparing Prince Mohammad bin Nayef to succeed the current heir apparent Prince Miqrin bin Abdel-Aziz. Mohammad bin Nayef, who was already serving as minister of interior, was also named last week as deputy crown prince and second deputy prime minister. King Salman has also named him as head of another key council that has just been established — the Council for Political and Security Affairs. The council’s remit includes foreign policy, defence and security, putting prince Mohammad in ultimate control of all three. Other members of the council include foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, national guard minister Mit’ib bin Abdullah (the late king’s son), defence minister Mohammad bin Salman (the new king’s son), Islamic affairs minister Saleh bin Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the head of the general intelligence service and two ministers of state without portfolio.
King Salman has also vastly curtailed the power of the late King Abdullah’s sons. He has removed two of them from senior posts, appointing Faisal bin Bandar as governor of Riyadh in place of Turki bin Abdullah, and reinstating Khaled al-Faisal as governor of Mecca in place of Mishaal bin Abdullah. The only son of the late Abdullah to keep a senior post is Mit’ib, who is still minister in charge of the National Guard.
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