Revamping the Middle East
World watches in anticipation as winds of change sweep across Saudi Arabia.
The recent overhaul of military commanders in Saudi Arabia including sacking of military chief of staff reflects tightening of grip on power by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who is also Defence Minister of the ultraconservative Sunni kingdom.
Prince Mohammad, 32, has been the main driver of the once-staid kingdom's more aggressive regional push since he took over as Defence Minister in early 2015. The revamp of the military establishment also includes a new strategy to restructure the Defence Ministry for improved organisation and governance.
Prince Mohammad has amassed a level of power unseen by previous rulers as he oversees a sweeping programme of modernisation aimed at preparing the kingdom for a post-oil era. The regime is desperate to make the most of the "feel-good" factor at a time when outside observers are having second thoughts about the stability of the kingdom and the wisdom behind the many recent changes, such as the plausibility of the corruption purges and the promise to end Saudi dependence on oil.
The Crown Prince and heir apparent has promised reforms to wean Saudi Arabia off oil exports, create jobs and open up Saudi's cloistered lifestyles.
The feel-good factor is related to reforms such as the appointment of women to high positions, lifting the ban on women driving, allowing women to attend concerts and football matches, dispensing with the need for them to obtain consent of a male relative to start their own businesses (a step away from the Kingdom's guardianship system) and allowing women to join the military establishment under strict conditions.
The appointment of Tamadur al-Ramah as Deputy Minister of Labour and Development came immediately after the announcement that women can apply for jobs in the military establishment. Women in Saudi Arabia already work in security and intelligence in the Kingdom.
By relaxing its rules with regard to women the regime seems to modernise and project a more moderate face of Islam and is perhaps also sending signals to foreign investors, who in general, are more keen to employ Saudi women than men.
A senior Saudi cleric recently said that women need not wear the Abaya—the loose-fitting full-length robe symbolic of religious faith—and another prominent sheikh said that celebrating Valentine's Day did not contradict Islamic teachings, defying the religious police's hardline position.
Prominent among the personnel changes is the sacking of military chief of staff Gen Abdulrahman bin Saleh. He was replaced by Gen Fayyadh bin Hamid al-Rwaili who once had been the commander of the Royal Saudi Air Force.
Saudi analyst Ahmed al-Towayan, speaking on Saudi state television, said the new appointments were "pumping young blood" into local government while elevating young commanders into top military posts.
The military shake-up comes at a time the Saudi-led coalition, backed by UAE, remains mired in a conflict in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Despite a multi-billion dollar campaign, the coalition has failed to defeat the Houthis in the conflict that the United Nations says has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The Kingdom has come under wide international criticism for its airstrikes killing civilians and striking markets, hospitals and other civilian targets. Over 10,000 people have been killed in the war. Aid workers also blame a Saudi-led blockade of Yemen for pushing the country to the brink of famine.
The overhaul of the defence forces should not be seen only as a reaction to the Yemen war, says Becca Wasser, a Washington-based RAND Corp. analyst.
"The plan seeks to reform the Saudi armed forces from a large, inefficient fighting force full of top-level bloat to a streamlined and professional military,'' he was quoted as saying by AFP.
"The armed forces have been plagued by wasteful spending, incoherent resource allocation and unmeritocratic personnel policies, with different services acting as mini-fiefdoms rather than a coherent whole," he said.
While the revamp might be aimed at transforming the armed forces in the long haul, experts say it could well have far-reaching implications on the conflict in Yemen where the war has dragged on for nearly three years. They believe that the restructuring could have knock-on effects for the Saudi military performance in Yemen.
Government officials insist that the revamp is prompted by the problems the military is facing in Yemen but is part of a long-term strategy encompassing all elements of the ministry including organisation, force structure and long-term procurement.
The restructuring has also come as the kingdom is looking to establish its own arms industry. The country has been a major global arms importer but some countries are now hesitant to supply weapons because of its role in Yemen.
Recently, the state-owned Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) organised an exhibition that drew several global firms. SAMI's goal is to become a major player in the global defence industry and localise more than 50 per cent of the military spending by 2030, according to its website.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)