The Saudi cabinet witnessed a major reshuffle at the end of 2018; Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was ousted by the Saudi king and his seat was given to Ibrahim al-Assaf, a former finance minister. From now on, Adel al-Jubeir will serve as the State Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Also dismissed was Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the ambassador of Riyadh in London. The Saudi King also appointed Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz as Chief of the National Guard. Among other changes in the cabinet was the appointment of Hamad al-Shaikh as the education minister.
Apparently, these changes are undoubtedly influenced by the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. As for the consequences of these changes perhaps the repercussions are more important than the reshuffle itself. Because in Saudi Arabia, this kind of changes do not take place by democratic means, and most of the work is done through consensual decisions within the ruling Royal Family. And today the ruling establishment is more focused on Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman.
Therefore, the decisions are made within a restricted circle and do not have democratic roots. For this reason, the decision’s outcome is more important than the decision itself. Nonetheless, in democracies, the most important part is the people involved in creating, suspension or bargaining around a decision. But in non-democratic systems such as Saudi Arabia, the consequences of decision making are more important than the forces affecting the decision-making process. Because you can speculate about them.
From this angle, the removal of Adel al-Jubeir could suggest that Saudi Arabia, and more specifically Mohammed bin Salman and the King, are seeking to bring about changes in foreign policy orientations in the region, in particular with regard to the issues of Yemen, Iran, Turkey, and the UAE-Saudi coalition. As to what these changes are and how extensive they would be is something the passage of time will decide.
But at the current stage, it can be analyzed that these changes will not be very deep and widespread and we should not expect a tangible shift in Saudi foreign policy vis-à-vis the Yemeni crisis or Iran-related issues.
In more simple words, the change of the Saudi foreign minister does not mean a sudden change in Riyadh’s foreign policy towards Tehran and opting for reconciliation. Likewise, Saudi Arabia is not expected to fully change its policy towards Turkey and Yemen. Meantime, it can be guessed that Mohammed bin Salman or the King are looking to make some changes, albeit limited.
Simply put, we should consider the range of these changes to be very small. There is no doubt about the principle of change in Saudi foreign policy, but the extent of these changes will certainly be limited. Because the conservative Saudi establishment has also shown in the past that it is basically reluctant to make sudden and profound changes, and the Saudi political system cannot tolerate a wide range of changes.
With the removal of Adel al-Jubeir and appointment of a more economy-minded foreign minister, Saudi rhetoric and harsh statements (made by the sacked foreign minister) against Iran would subside and Saudi elites would have a chance to help somewhat reduce the war of words with countries such as Iran and Turkey. In other words, by adopting such policies, they are trying to improve the badly tarnished international image of Saudi Arabia over the brutal murder of Khashoggi.
But beyond this decision, there is no strong will on behalf of the Saudis to quit their regional ambitions. It seems Riyadh’s decision to become a strategic actor in the region is a long-term and calculated choice. Therefore, these changes cannot be taken as a policy shift by the Saudis. Meanwhile, it is clear that Saudi Arabia is faced with challenges to achieve this demand. Therefore, the change of the foreign minister may be seen as a tactical move by Bin Salman to lessen the pressure from the international community and the regional countries over the Khashoggi murder and create a respite for the Crown Prince. This will also provide the Crown Prince with an opportunity to work in a peaceful environment to attain his goal, namely turning Saudi Arabia into an effective regional power.