Saudi Military Shake-up: Bin Salman’s Smooth New Purge

The 33-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has no time for trial and error and optimism on his way to the throne. He is putting extreme obsession into efforts to purge any potential home opponents who could set up roadblocks ahead of his seizure of power. This started by launching a campaign of detention of royals, businessmen, and former ministers and now appears to be reaching its peak by sacking the military chiefs.

For the past four months, Saudi Arabia has been the point of the global media focus following the detention of a group of princes. Now it is returning to the news headlines as the king has dismissed army chiefs in overnight decrees. Late on Monday night, King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued a royal decree removing the highest-ranking military leaders.

Military and security shake-up

Al-Arabiya, a state-run Saudi news channel, has reported on the crucial change in the nation’s military body saying that General Abdulrahman bin Saleh Al-Bunyan, the army’s chief of general staff, has been “retired” and replaced by Lieutenant General Fayyad bin Hamed al-Ruwayli.

The news channel also reported that the ground and air forces’ commanders have been sacked. The changes did not stop at the military body. Some deputy ministers and also mayors also were replaced by new figures. The king also appointed Tamadur bint Youssef al-Ramah as deputy labor minister in a first-ever break with the kingdom’s tradition of not allowing the women to serve in the government’s top jobs.

The Saudi monarch also appointed a number of young princes as his advisors. The defense ministry, meanwhile, announced that its new military strategy has been ratified by the king. Such a shake-up in the senior military chiefs is almost unprecedented, especially that the army chief did not survive the overhaul.

Despite the fact that Al-Arabiya has said that the military leader retired from his job, change of the ground and air forces’ chief along with some ministry officials all of a sudden with royal order by the king give the sense that they were purged.

Three-year Yemen war proves a failure

No official reason has been given for the overhaul, but the removal of the top military and security commanders may signal that very likely the sackings have security drives.

The analysts suggest that the main reason behind the shake-up is the failure of the West-backed regime in its aggression against neighboring Yemen.

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia led an Arab military alliance including the UAE that launched an aggression against Yemen for what it called restoring to power the resigned Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The offensive, dubbed Operation Storm of Resolve, was designed to get the Arab kingdom to what it wanted in a matter of a couple of weeks, but the war is reaching the end of its third year and nothing has much changed to the Saudis’ advantage. Sana’a the Yemeni capital is still fully controlled by the revolutionary committees, and even worse for the Saudis the Yemeni forces sometimes responded to the Saudi barbarity with missile strikes into the kingdom, including the King Khaled International Airport in the Saudi capital.

The failure to make gains in the war after three years comes while the kingdom is the top arms purchaser among others in the region. The Saudi leaders have purchased state of the art weapons from the West only to find themselves unable to make any difference on the ground in Yemen.

All these signal Riyadh’s defeat in one of the most costly regional wars. The Saudis’ goals in Yemen have run into despair. Now the kingdom is facing mounting international and rights groups’ pressures to end the campaign that so far killed thousands, injured hundreds of thousands and displaced more.

In such inimical conditions for Riyadh, the Saudi king has changed the military chiefs in hope of introducing some difference to the conflict equations in Yemen. Though many analysts do not find these measures game-changing with reference to the nature of war and the high morale of Yemen’s armed and popular forces who have been unwaveringly resisting the Arab forces and foreign mercenaries hired by Riyadh over three years.

There are other views about the overhaul. Heinous crimes against the Yemeni civilians have brought the Saudis under heavy rights groups’ disparagement. The Saudi government, the analysts suggest, has made the changes to reduce the pressures on the threshold of Prince Mohammed’s visit to a number of European countries which could be settings to massive anti-Saudi protests.

Bin Salman’s obsession on the way to the throne

The sudden change of the military commanders and top ministry officials is not irrelevant to the similar purge of bin Salman over the past few months. Bin Salman is named the number two strongman of the kingdom after his father the king. In early November last year, bin Salman founded an anti-corruption committee which launched a campaign of detention holding over 40 of top royals and businessmen.

But the arrest of Alwaleed bin Talal, the Saudi billionaire prince, and Mutaib bin Abdullah, who until his detention served as the minister of the National Guard, has been widely read as a purge led by bin Salman to firm up his rule pillars and remove potential opponents as he prepared to take his father’s place rather than an anti-corruption action in its real sense.

Like the November sweep of the powerful royals, today’s sackings are seen as a move to pave the way for the largely-naïve Saudi prince to hold the power. Meanwhile, the Yemen war fiascos give him an excellent chance to purge his possible adversaries inside the military and security institutions.

Certainly, he has no time for trial and error and optimism on his way to the throne. He is putting extreme obsession into efforts to purge any potential home opponents either through open detention of the royals and powerful businessmen or through dismissal of the military chiefs.

Appointment of a group of young advisors by the king and first-ever appointment of a female deputy minister more than anything are expressive of the young prince’s ambitions unveiled in 2016 under Saudi Vision 2030, an economic and social development program which is promoted to transform the kingdom economically and socially. This included some measures including allowing the women to drive, enter the stadiums, and serve in the army which is signaling a break with traditions.

Allowing young advisors to enter the orbit of the 82-year-old king is part of an effort led by Prince Mohammed to marginalize the traditional strongmen who are not optimistic about power transition. As Mohammed’s advancing towards the throne goes faster, the old generation of power-holders in the kingdom gives place to the fresh generation who is supposed to build his underpinning base in the future power structure.


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