Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah appointed a new deputy defense minister, General Staff chief, and new Air Force and Navy chiefs, among others. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
DUBAI — Saudi Arabia’s reshuffling of its top military leadership — in which hardliners are being replaced by moderates — is just the latest in a string of changes in the kingdom’s defense posture, and comes as Saudi Arabia assures its allies that it is still strong on defense.
Following the removal of the gulf state’s powerful intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, on April 15, the kingdom staged a massive military exercise called Abdullah’s Sword and featured ballistic missiles on April 29. Then last week, news surfaced that Saudi Arabia has extended an invitation to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to visit the kingdom, followed by the reshuffle in defense leadership.
Those wondering whether all these changes will hasten or endanger defense deals with Saudi Arabia should not expect changes any time soon, if at all, experts say.
The changes, first reported by state news agency SPA, involve the deputy defense minister, the chief of General Staff and the heads of the Air Force and Navy, among others.
Prince Salman bin Sultan was removed from his post as deputy defense minister “upon his request,” SPA said, citing a royal decree.
He was replaced by Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the governor of Riyadh.
The outgoing deputy minister is a son of the late Crown Prince Sultan, who served as a defense minister for nearly five decades.
SPA said King Abdullah also removed the chief of General Staff, Gen. Hussein al-Qabeel, who was retiring, and replaced him with Gen. Abdurahman al-Bunyan.
The reshuffle has centered around the current minister of the National Guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah
According to Middle East military analyst Matthew Hedges, from the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), the changes are of particular interest in regard to the personnel from King Abdullah’s direct lineage.
“Starting with the appointment of Prince Mutaib to minister of National Guard, a trend is occurring within the region where high-level allies of the ruling monarch and monarchs to be are transitioning from military to civil organizations,” he said.
“Having seen the utilization of military power against regimes in the Middle East, the absence of external enemies is turning the use of militaries within the borders of [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries.”
Hedges argues that it is becoming increasingly important to separate the military leadership from the ruling families and that is where the ministerial positions are enjoying so much growth for members of the region’s ruling family.
“In Saudi, the ministerial positions in such key areas are all being assumed by sons of King Abdullah and or by allies of his lineage,” he said.
The appointment of Prince Khalid bin Bandar al-Saud, the first grandson of King Abdulaziz, in the place of Prince Salman bin Sultan as the deputy defense minister is in accordance with other moves that has seen King Abdullah replace more traditional-leaning leaders with moderates inside Saudi Arabia, Hedges said.
Political analyst Abdel Khaleq Abdullah, professor of political science at the United Arab Emirates University, said there has been a drawback of the hardliners’ camp within the Saudi government, which was led by Former Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar.
Abdullah added that the Saudi government must have realized that the actions by the hardliner camp were not helping, citing Syria as the example.
“A change within the Saudi leadership has occurred and the hardliners and moderates have met to realign the policies,” he said.
Hedges said there are signs that the king is moving more people closer to him, including his son, Prince Turki bin Abdullah, into higher positions as the governor of Riyadh to cement their position come the next ruler’s regime.
The civil-military relations shift in the Gulf Cooperation Council is placing the military institutions under civilian oversight.
“The changes to the military hierarchy are especially interesting given that in the last three years, all the Saudi chiefs of staff have all been replaced,” Hedges said.
“This signals a coming change to leadership within the kingdom as King Abdullah is placing his allies close so they can assist a transition where potentially Prince Mutaib takes over.”
According to National Security Analyst Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the military chain of command hierarchy in the kingdom is under the king and Royal Court. That is followed by the crown prince, Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz and the Ministry of Defense and then the Saudi Arabian National Guard and Prince Mutaib.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud bin Faisal and the Foreign Ministry are followed by the National Security Council led by Prince Bander’s interim replacement, Lt. Gen. Yousif bin Ali al-Idrissi, who is described by experts as a Saudi Arabian intelligence insider.
The New Military Structure
New Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid is a graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was the commander of the Royal Saudi Land Forces.
In 2011, a royal decree was issued promoting him to lieutenant general and appointing him as commander of the Land Forces.
New Assistant Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Mohammad Bin Abdullah al-Aish is the former Royal Saudi Air Force commander until May 10 last year, when he was retired, according to the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
In his new role as the assistant defense minister, Aish is expected to play a leading role in shaping defense policy and in managing the daily decisions of the ministry.
New chief of General Staff Al-Bunyan is former director general of the Defense Minister’s office.
Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Fayyad al-Ruwaili was promoted from being the commander of the Royal Saudi Air Force.
New Commander of the Air Force Lt. Gen. Muhammad al-Shallan has been promoted from deputy. His previous position until 2012 was as head of Royal Saudi Air Force Operations.
Newly promoted head of the Naval Command Vice Adm. Abdullah al-Sultan has held the position of deputy commander Royal Saudi Naval Force, commander of the Western Fleet, intelligence chief of staff, operations chief of staff as well as the base commander Western Fleet. ■
Agence France-Presse contributed.