RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi King Salman appointed a nephew as new heir and made his young son second in line to rule on Wednesday, a major shift in power towards two princes who have overseen a more assertive stance at a time of almost unprecedented regional turmoil.
By making Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, crown prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, 30, deputy crown prince, King Salman has effectively decided the line of succession for decades to come in the world’s top oil exporter.
The announcement means the kingship will pass to a new generation for the first time since 1953, when the throne passed from the founder of the dynasty, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, to the first of six of his sons who have held it since.
The appointments signal a tougher foreign policy, particularly towards regional foe Iran, but little change to a firm hand against dissent at home, where Riyadh this week said it had detained 93 suspected Islamic State militants.
Almost all powers under the king are now concentrated in the hands of the pair, who each chair committees determining all security and economic development issues in Saudi Arabia, and have led Riyadh’s month-old campaign of air strikes in Yemen.
In another big shift, Salman replaced veteran Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who had served in the role since October 1975, with the kingdom’s Washington ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, the first non-royal to hold the post.
The new crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, enjoys closer personal ties with U.S. officials than almost any other senior royal, diplomats have said.
He is also a member of the same branch of the royal family as Salman - the Sudairis - which include the present king and descendants of his six full brothers, rather than those of his dozens of half brothers, including his predecessor, King Abdullah, who died in January.
Another half brother, Prince Muqrin, had been in line as successor but is now replaced. The king said the decisions were approved by a majority of the family’s Allegiance Council, a body set up to govern succession.
In a show of support, Saudi state television showed members of the royal family, including Muqrin, flocking to the royal court to pledge allegiance to the new crown prince and his deputy.
A U.S. official said Washington was pleased to see younger people moving up in Saudi Arabia and Jubeir being promoted to foreign minister, but was still assessing the changes, notably the increased influence of the Sudairis.
“Many people know Adel al-Jubeir. He is a very sophisticated player,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It is the Sudairis who have strengthened their hand here. We just don’t know what it means and how people (from other parts of the Saudi royal family) will react.”
The changes come as Saudi Arabia navigates the messy aftermath of the Arab spring and worries that its strategic partner Washington is disengaging from the region. It has broken with decades of backroom politics by bombing Yemen.
The Yemen move, closely associated with both heirs, is seen by analysts as indicative of a more confrontational foreign policy under Salman and his ruling team, who have worked to build a coalition of Sunni allies against Iran.
Riyadh appears increasingly determined to counter Tehran’s allies, including in Syria, where Saudi-backed rebels against President Bashar al-Assad have recently made gains.
“I think we’re going to see a more confrontational policy, faster decision-making and more long-term thinking. A leadership that won’t hesitate from any confrontation,” said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with close ties to the kingdom’s Interior Ministry.
It follows what many Saudis see as a decade of growing Iranian influence across the Middle East coupled with concerns that the United States has stopped listening.
The appointment of the new crown prince, with his strong ties to the American establishment, may help alleviate such concerns, along with the appointment of Jubeir.
The rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria has also caused security threats at home including recent attacks on police and minority Shi’ites.
Saudi Arabia faces long-term domestic challenges, including entrenched youth unemployment, unsustainable state spending and tension between religious conservatives and more Western-oriented liberals.
The reshuffle also touches the oil sector. Saudi Arabia’s decision not to cut production last year has helped cause a global fall in oil prices.
The head of state oil firm Aramco, Khalid al-Falih, was named as the new health minister in Wednesday’s royal decree. A new Aramco CEO has not been named but analysts said oil policy was not likely to change.
In a statement on Wednesday Aramco described Falih as the outgoing CEO and president, and also as chairman of its board of directors, appearing to confirm an earlier report on al-Arabiya television.
“I don’t think there’s been any disagreement about the idea of keeping up production, maintaining market share,” Clement M. Henry, professor at Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, said.
While new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is a familiar figure both inside the kingdom and in the West for his role in quashing an al Qaeda uprising and leading Saudi policy in Syria, his successor as second in line to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, is comparatively unknown.
When his father became king in January, the young Prince Mohammed was a virtual stranger to the Saudi public and had had relatively little contact with the kingdom’s foreign partners.
Since then he has become, as Defence Minister, the face of Saudi Arabia’s newly-launched war in Yemen, with his bearded features rarely off television screens or street billboards, and is now established as a central figure.
“Mohammed bin Salman can grow into the job under Mohammed bin Nayef’s supervision,” Alani said.
The generational shift ends concerns about a line of increasingly frail, aged kings after Salman, who is 80 this year, replaced the 90 year old Abdullah.
“We don’t want Saudi Arabia to be ruled by one ailing leader after another,” said Jamal Khashoggi, general manager of al-Arab television station.
Reporting by Sami Aboudi, Mostafa Hashem, Maha El Dahan, Reem Shamseddine, Henning Gloystein and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by William Maclean, Philippa Fletcher and Peter Graff