Still, this is change in a place where there is often none. In addition to injecting some young blood into the kingdom’s creaky gerontocracy, the moves were likely also made with an eye on Washington. In another major shake-up, Salman replaced Saud bin Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, in his post since 1975, with U.S. ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, 53 and a non-royal. Jubeir and Bin Nayef are both well-known to U.S. officials. With relations between the two countries strained by the Arab Spring, the Obama administration’s diplomatic opening to Iran, and U.S. officials’ very public doubts about the Yemen campaign, Salman may have wanted to elevate figures who can keep the Americans happy.
He may be on to something here. Muhammad b. Nayef has been Saudi Interior Minister since 2012, and in that role he’s probably the kingdom’s top counter-terror man. From 1999-2012 he was Assistant Interior Minister for Security Affairs, another gig where counter-terrorism was obviously a big part of the portfolio. He’s survived four assassination attempts, at least one perpetrated by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and apparently was responsible for alerting US officials to the 2010 AQAP attempt to blow up a couple cargo planes over the US. So he’s got a lot of credibility when it comes to dealing with Sunni extremists, and if the US is starting to wonder whether the Saudis can be a real partner in the fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS, making it clear that Muhammad b. Nayef is next in line for the throne could be one way to ease Washington’s mind. Adel al-Jubeir is also likely to be on friendlier terms with Washington than the man he’s replacing, Saud al-Faisal, who has overseen the recent deterioration in the US-KSA relationship.
Muhammad b. Salman, on the other hand, is more of an unknown quantity. He’s been in charge of the air campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, whose most notable achievement so far has been its big name change, and that won’t necessarily endear him to DC given that the US has been only lukewarm in its support for that effort. But his appointment (leaving aside the main factor, which is that he’s King Salman’s son) does show that Saudi leadership is preparing to continue its current muscular regional foreign policy, which could either be reassuring to DC (on counter-terrorism grounds) or a little bit of a veiled threat (on Iran deal grounds) depending on how you look at it.