|The shifts in Saudi Arabia’s power structure that have taken place since King Salman came to power in January 2015 have created a new set of Saudi priorities for shaping Saudi Arabia’s future. These new priorities have led to major changes in Saudi Arabia’s national security structure and leadership, and to calls for major social and economic reform. They have changed the leadership of the Saudi Ministry of Interior, National Guard, and Foreign Ministry. These new priorities have led to participation in a major war in Yemen, efforts to isolate Qatar that have broken up an already weak and divided Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and deeper tensions with Iran over its military build-up and efforts to expand its regional influence.
Most of the earlier changes at top levels of the Saudi government and security structure were motivated by the new King’s desire to consolidate power at the top of the government and royal family. In the process they have made Mohammed bin Salman bin Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud (normally referred to as Mohammed bin Salman or “MBS”) the Crown Prince, First Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and President of the Council for Economic and Development Affair – combining the responsibilities for Saudi Arabia’s security, civil sector, and economic development to one man.
The more recent changes to the Saudi national security sector and military command made in February 2018 are harder to interpret. There is no way—as of yet— to put the changes in the Saudi national security sector and military command structure into perspective. One can speculate that these changes were either a further effort to assert control by a new regime, or part of a serious effort by the Crown Prince to improve Saudi military planning, budgeting & fiscal management, and military operations.
Mohammed bin Salman may have been reacting to the lack of progress in the war in Yemen, Saudi tensions with Qatar, and MBS’s feelings that too much of the Kingdom’s security spending has been wasteful, poorly planned, and involved some element of corruption. Speculation aside, there are no credible reports that provide a reliable “inside” picture of what is happening.
What is clear, however, is that the Kingdom has been spending far too large a portion of its economy on security priorities that have yielded uncertain results. This spending on security is large enough to compete with Saudi Arabia’s ability to fund its 2030 plan to reform and modernize its economy and social structure. Saudi Arabia must better balance its civil and national security spending by reducing its security spending and using its resources far more effectively.