The Saudi military was hit by a major reshuffle after that King Salman issues several Royal Decrees removing leading military and appointing new blood. Analysts have stated that Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman (known as MBS) has been the main driver for this reshuffle, which fired the joint chiefs of staff of the Saudi military this week. As presented by Saudi official sources, the chairman of the joint chiefs, the army commander, air defense chief, and Royal Saudi Air Force leaders have been replaced. Officially no explanation has been given but it is clear that the current move is part of MBS to reimpose his own alliances and support his power position in the country. Some indications have however also been given that there could have been a slight distrust between MBS and the former military elite on the progress of Saudi military operations in Yemen and Syria, both important for MBS, and a lack of support for Saudi Vision 2030. As one analyst indicated, the military elite was not really believers of MBS’s strategy.

The current military shakeup follows the removal of the minister for the Saudi national guard last November. At present, MBS has replaced the total military leadership of the Kingdom in a few months. The main reason clearly is the fact that the Yemen war, which has been a high profile military adventure instigated by MBS, has not yet returned the expected results. Instead of quelling the Houthi uprising and confronting the Iranian support of the Shi’ite forces in Yemen via a quick and clean military operation, Saudi Arabia and its main supporter UAE are currently looking at a prolonged military operation where goals are still far from reachable. On the contrary, Houthi rebel forces have even been able to engage in military action against the Saudi hinterland, via launching multiple missile barrages on Saudi targets. Riyadh is also looking at a situation in which the military supporters of Yemen president Hadi are under pressure, sometimes even engaged in internal military clashes. The success of the so-called “Decisive Storm” has been very low, resulting in the current stalemate and a military quagmire. The Kingdom is even being confronted by growing international opposition, as the US, UK, Germany and Canada, already have warned that the ongoing onslaught in Yemen could result in withholding or blocking of future military sales to Riyadh.

 

In addition to the Yemen conundrum, the successes of Saudi military support in the Syrian civil war is also under severe pressure. The highly publicized Saudi -UAE support for anti-Assad forces has been without any real results, the embattled Syrian president is still in power, looking even at a total victory, based on Russian-Iranian and Hezbollah military support. A military strategy to engage and counter Iranian backed proxies in Syria, and Iraq, has been until now without any real results on the battlefield.

For MBS these developments could be a threat to his power position or maybe even put a dent in the possibility of him becoming king. Without any doubt, MBS is not an Arab leader that will put in place a re-active national and regional military strategy. Looking at his very promising economic and social programs, putting in place Vision 2030 and enforcing the inclusion of women in all sectors of society, the crown prince will be upping up the ante now also military. The reshuffle, seen by some as a sign of weakness, will most probably be the first step towards a new enhanced military operation in Yemen, and maybe even elsewhere. As a failure in Yemen will be a possible threat to his current road to power, MBS will not wait until regional powers are changing. The coming months, the chances for an increased military action in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, are to be expected.  The crown prince has not only the option to claim the Yemen war as a fight against Iran but also as part of the Saudi-UAE-Egypt led counter offensive against Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda.  The latter has been building up a strong power base in Yemen.

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