Saudi crown prince to visit Britain on March 7

RIYADH: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman yesterday received senior officers who were appointed and promoted to new military ranks. – SPA

RIYADH/LONDON: Saudi Arabia has replaced some of its top military officers in a shake-up that elevates a younger generation, brings a woman into a senior government job and tightens Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s grip on power. In a reshuffle announced late on Monday, the military chief of staff, air defense and land forces heads and senior defense and interior ministry officials were removed. Tamadur bint Youssef Al-Ramah became deputy labor minister, a rare high-level job for a woman in the deeply conservative kingdom.

The overhaul was a nod to a younger generation, analysts said, in what has become a hallmark of the crown prince’s approach to ruling youthful Saudi Arabia, where patriarchal traditions have long made power the preserve of the old. The appointment of a woman at the labor ministry is part of efforts to modernize and promote a more moderate form of Islam.

The crown prince, who at 32 is also defense minister and heir apparent, has promised reforms to wean Saudi Arabia off oil exports, create jobs and open up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles. The latest personnel changes were decreed by King Salman and published in state media. No reason was given but the changes appear to have enabled Prince Mohammed to put his personal stamp of authority on key levers of the military.

The new military chief of staff was named as First Lieutenant Fayyad bin Hamed Al-Ruwayli. His predecessor, First Lieutenant Abdelrahman bin Saleh Al-Banyan, was retired and made a royal advisor. The decrees included adopting a new strategy to restructure the defense ministry for improved organization and governance, but provided few details. Prince Mohammed has said it is “unacceptable” that high military spending has not translated into better performance.

Government officials insist the revamp is not prompted by the short-term problems facing the military in Yemen but is part of a long-term strategy that has been years in the making. “The most significant order issued by King Salman was approval of the Ministry of Defense development plan,” tweeted Faisal bin Farhan, a senior adviser at the Saudi embassy in Washington, referring to Monday’s royal decrees. “This multiyear effort, which had been under review for months encompasses all elements of the ministry including organization, force structure and long term procurement.”

Banyan’s retirement comes after he inaugurated a global arms exhibition this week in the Saudi capital Riyadh by the Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), the state-owned defense company. “A military transformation is underway in Saudi Arabia,” Theodore Karasik, a senior advisor at the consultancy Gulf States Analytics, told AFP. “The changes come on the heels of the SAMI exhibition, which is a critical part of the Prince Mohammed’s reform plan to create an indigenous defense program,” he said.

SAMI’s goal is to become a “major player in the global defense industry” and “localize more than 50 percent of the military spending” by 2030, according to its website. It aims to create 40,000 direct jobs and contribute 14 billion riyals ($3.7 billion) to the kingdom’s gross domestic product by 2030. “The military shake-up is aimed at cleaning up and reinvigorating the structure as Saudi Arabia tries to create a viable, sustainable and eventually an export-oriented military industry,” Mohammed Alyahya, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told AFP. “Projecting military strength is a key part of the strategy.”

“This plan seeks to reform the Saudi armed forces from a large, inefficient fighting force full of top-level bloat to a streamlined and professionalized military,” Becca Wasser, a policy analyst at the US-based RAND Corporation, told AFP. “The armed forces have been plagued by wasteful spending, incoherent resource allocation, and unmeritocratic personnel policies, with the different services acting as mini-fiefdoms rather than a coherent whole.”

The military reform plan appears geared towards reducing inefficient spending and turning the armed forces into a meritocracy, both gargantuan tasks in an institution widely seen as resistant to change. Some of the command shifts saw the removal of “dead weight” from top ranks, Wasser said -military leaders opposed to change who were sent into retirement. They were replaced largely with younger, more flexible leaders loyal to Prince Mohammed, further consolidating his control within the military.

The decrees also included the appointment of three deputy governors from among the descendants of Princes Ahmed, Talal and Muqrin - brothers of King Salman, some of whom may have felt sidelined by changes since his accession to the throne in 2015. One of them, new deputy governor of Asir province, Prince Turki bin Talal, is the brother of billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who was detained in the government’s anti-corruption campaign and released only last month.

Meanwhile, Prince Mohammed will begin a visit to Britain on March 7 which will include talks with Prime Minister Theresa May on topics such as extremism and societal reform, May’s spokesman said yesterday. “The visit will usher in a new era in bilateral relations focused on a partnership that delivers wide-ranging benefits for both the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the spokesman said. “The visit will also provide an opportunity to enhance our co-operation in tackling international challenges such as terrorism, extremism, the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen and other regional issues such as Iraq and Syria.”

May discussed the visit with her cabinet earlier yesterday, including the much anticipated stock market listing of state oil company Saudi Aramco - potentially the biggest listing in history and the subject of a high profile tug of war between Britain and the United States. “The fact that there is a potential listing of Saudi Aramco was discussed, but in no more terms than that,” the spokesman said. In a separate statement issued after the meeting with her cabinet, May said the crown prince’s visit - his first since his appointment in June 2017 - would allow Britain to talk “frankly and constructively” about areas of concern like Yemen and security in the Middle East. – Agencies