Saudi Arabia
Saudi ArabiaiStock

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdul Aziz today (Wednesday) dismissed his nephew Muhammad bin Nayef as his First Crown Prince and Interior Minister and appointed his son, Muhammad bin Salman, 31, to serve as Defense Minister. Bin Salman replaces his cousin as heir to the throne in a shake-up that consolidates the 31-year-old leader’s power in the world’s biggest oil exporter, reports Bloomberg.

State television aired a video showing Prince Muhammad bin Nayef pledging his allegiance in a meeting with the new crown prince. The younger prince bent down on his knees before his cousin and repeatedly kissed his hand.

"May god help you," Prince bin Nayef told him. "I can’t do without your instructions," the younger price replied.

The king’s decision to elevate his son, who already controlled the defense, oil and economy portfolios, was supported by 31 out of 34 members of the Allegiance Council, made up of senior members of the ruling Al Saud family. King Salman relieved Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef from his post as Interior Minister in a royal decree. Salman has ordered the kingdom's royal family to swear allegiance to the new heir apparent at a special ceremony to be held today in Mecca.

The change gives Prince Muhammad greater authority to pursue his plan to reduce the kingdom’s reliance on oil, which includes selling a stake in oil giant Saudi Aramco and putting other assets under the control of a sovereign wealth fund he also heads. As defense minister, the prince oversees the war in Yemen against pro-Iranian Shiite rebels. He’s also a key figure in the current standoff with Qatar.

Mohammed bin Salman will also serve as Deputy Prime Minister. In addition, the king appointed Prince Abd al-Azizi as Minister of the Interior in place of Ben Nayef.

The 31-year-old new heir has a broad background in political activity, as defense minister and as head of a council aimed at reforming the Saudi economy.

Ben Salman recently visited the United States and met with President Donald Trump. He is one of the strongest figures in Saudi Arabia - he led the Saudi war in Yemen, led many changes in the kingdom, among other things promoted energy policy and planned the future of the kingdom after the oil age.

Muhammad Bin Zayed, the de factor ruler of the UAE, has told Bin Salman that he must open a “strong channel of communication” with Israel if he is to be Washington’s preferred candidate to be king, according to Middle East Eye. Their Saudi source said Bin Salman is eager to win the support of Washington as he has recently told close associates “he will complete the mission of becoming king before the end of the year”.

Prince ibn Salman, U.S. President Donald Trump, White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, Gary Cohn (Reuters)

Riyadh and Jerusalem were reported last year as having effectively worked together - despite officially having no diplomatic ties - to try to stop the US agreeing a nuclear deal with Iran.

Representatives of the two countries have shared public platforms, such as at the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2015, when retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki spoke alongside Israeli official Dore Gold.

Saudi-Israeli relations are a sensitive topic due to overwhelmingly sympathetic public opinion in the kingdom on the Palestinian cause for statehood.

Christopher Davidson, author of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, said, "Traditionally, Arab clients of the United States have often tried to curry favour with the Americans by being seen to at least cosy up to the state that they feel is America’s number one friend in the region – Israel”.

One of the Saudi sources said Washington could be swayed into supporting Bin Salman's bid to be king if he could achieve good communication with Israel, even if the Americans like Bin Nayef.

David Hearst, editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye, sums up: "The Arab people from the Atlantic to the Gulf have changed. They have shed blood, lost homes, families, jobs, and their liberty. Thousands are in jail. Thousands more have drowned in the Mediterranean. Millions have been displaced. They are no longer awe struck by their absolute rulers with their absolute privilege and absolute wealth. And they are prepared to fight for basic human rights.

"The House of Saud with all its court intrigues, with Abdullah merging into Salman and then Mohammed, has not changed. Access to power depends on the family tree. It makes a difference whether you are a brother or half-brother.

"Ministerial portfolios are still handed down from father to son like goods and chattel. Professionals are still replaced with placemen. The family puts enormous power in the hands of one man. It makes gigantic mistakes in Yemen and Syria. And it is still, with its unimaginable wealth, a house of cards."