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The slaying of the Saudi spider

King Salman’s removal of Prince Bandar in a reshuffle marks a major shift that will likely end the rift with Qatar and Turkey, but Egypt beware

The palace coup is complete. In a far reaching decree on Thursday night , the new Saudi king Salman unravelled the legacy of his half-brother Abdullah and set the kingdom on course for a significant regional re-alignment . A possible rapprochement with Turkey and Qatar, a return to the traditional role Saudi has occupied as mediator between Fatah and Hamas, and a qualitative change in the support Riyadh has given the military rulers of Egypt, are all now on the cards.

Blowing away the cobwebs also means dealing with the spider. Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been stripped of his last remaining role as head of the National Security Council. This , one senses, really is the end of the line for Bandar, and the region will be all the more stable for it.

Abdullah's two sons, the governor of Mecca, Prince Mishaal bin Abdullah, and Prince Turki, who governed the capital Riyadh have been dismissed. Only Abdullah son left in power is Prince Muteb, who stays as head of the National Guard. There is no love lost in this family.

Conservative and liberal

A conservative cleric, Saad al-Shethri, who backed gender segregation in higher education, has become Salman's personal adviser. But a balance has been struck by the new information minister who is a former head of Al Arabiya news channel, a young liberal Adel al-Toraifi.

The two men to emerge with the power to run the country are Mohammed bin Nayef, the deputy crown prince and Salman's son Mohammed, who now has three portfolios: defence ministry, the general secretary to the Royal Court, and president a newly formed Council of Economic and Development Affairs. Another Salman son Abdulaziz is deputy petroleum minister. The second generation has now been firmly secured by the Sudairi clan.

Salman started his reign by buying the love of his people, the same thing the late King Abdullah tried to do during the first months of the Arab Spring. All state employees will receive two months bonus salary, plus two months bonus pension for all retired state employees. Students who receive state grants and those on social security will get two months extra funds as well. The bill comes to a mere $30bn.

"Dear people: You deserve more and whatever I do I would not be able to give you what you deserve," the newly-inaugurated monarch said on Twitter, just a few weeks after Riyadh signalled it would have to cut back on public spending because of the oil price crash. Salman was retweeted 250,000 times.

Ending rift with Qatar and Turkey

King Salman has had rave reviews. All manner of former opponents to King Abdullah are now singing his praises. Informed Saudi observers note that King Abdullah became dogmatic in his last years. Salman for them marks a return to the moderation of King Fahd.

The new king stressed continuity, but his first seven days in power have been anything but. And the gear change will be noted first abroad. In a world in which personal relations play out in politics, it is important to remember who Salman's and Bin Nayef's friends are.

King Salman has remained close to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad , the emir of Qatar, so the threat that Saudi Arabia made last year to lay siege to its tiny neighbour, or have it expelled from the Gulf Cooperative Council now looks like a bad memory. Similarly, bin Nayef is close to senior Turkish officials, my sources tell me.

The rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia after the Arab revolutions of 2011 will have pained him, not just because the two regional powers need each other, to contain Iran's expanded influence in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria, but also personally. It is likely that he will repair that rift.

It is also pay back time for bin Nayef’s personal enemies. The interior minister has still not forgotten that two-hour conversation that the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed had with Richard Hass 12 years ago. Speaking about bin Nayef’s father, who was Saudi interior minister at the time, the Emirati prince observed that Darwin’s theory that man was descended from the apes was correct. 

Settling scores with bin Zayed

Bin Nayef, the son, has more recent scores to settle with Abu Dhabi's ruler. Erem News, which like every Emirati news outlet is controlled by the royal court, questioned bin Nayef's appointment as deputy crown prince. Saying that Salman failed to consult the Allegiance Council, the UAE mouthpiece noted : "The mechanism of choosing Mohammad Bin Nayef from among several prominent grandsons has attracted the attention of observers."

This was not a casual post. An Egyptian TV anchor Yousef Al-Hosseini tried the same thing on, as soon as Abdullah latest illness became known. According to Arab Secrets this was part of a campaign masterminded by the ousted Khaled al-Tuwaijri, Abdullah's confidant, to keep Prince Meteb lined up for the role of deputy crown prince. The website named the route through which anchor's script was dictated, from the Saudi royal court through to Sisi's office manager Abbas Kamil, the man who has been secretly recorded asking for the satirist Bassim Yousef to be taken off air.

Tuwaijri, Bandar and bin Zayed ran out of time. The king died before a serious challenge to Salman could be mounted. And now, two of them at least , are yesterday's men. We will watch with interest what happens to the third. This food chain of intrigue from Riyadh to Cairo is likely to be broken.

Sisi may lose blank cheque

The changes taking place in the Saudi royal palace are already having their effect . Bin Zayed stayed away from Abdullah's funeral, as did the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And just at the time when Sisi needs a fresh injection of Saudi cash, Egypt is more unstable than ever, with full scale military operations in the Sinai and mass protests around the country which never seem to die down. The Egyptian Pound is at an all time low. The options for Sisi appear to be narrowing.

It is not a good time for the Egyptian army to lose its chief bankroller in Riyadh, but this now is a real possibility. Even if bin Nayef decides to keep the funds going - and there was always a difference between funds promised, and hard cash received - it may now come with strings attched.

The policy of declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation may also be about to change. Salman himself received Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennadha, in his condolescences for the late king. This is the most senior Islamist to be welcomed in Saudi Arabia. The removal of Suleiman Ab Al-Khail as minister of Endowments and Islamic Affairs, who was an arch opponent of the Brotherhood, is another sign that the policy might be about to change.

Even if it doesn't, the outcome of the earthquake this week in Saudi Arabia will be received with quiet satisfaction by senior UK foreign office officials who bridled at David Cameron's launching of an inquiry into the Brotherhood in Britain, which was done under Saudi and Emirati pressure.

Up until Salman took over, the inquiry headed by Sir John Jenkins has proved to be a political embarrassment. It has been unpublishable because it came to the "wrong" conclusion, clearing the Brotherhood of any involvement in terrorism in Egypt. Now the new masters of Riyadh might even welcome such a conclusion.

David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.    

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.   

Photo: Saudi King Salman has announced a major reshuffle of his cabinet (AFP)  

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