Police stand in the way of protesters in Saudi Arabia’s eastern Gulf town of Qatif in this 2011 file photo. Image Credit: Reuters

Beirut: King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud appointed a former ambassador to Spain, Prince Saud Bin Nayef, as governor of the oil-rich Eastern Province, which is predominantly inhabited by the kingdom’s Shiite minority population and the scene of periodic bloody protests.

Simultaneously, the Saudi monarch appointed Prince Faisal Bin Salman as governor of Madinah province, along with a slew of other significant political permutations.

Although governor Faisal Bin Salman replaced Abdul Aziz Bin Majid Bin Abdul Aziz after the latter served for less than eight years in office, governor Saud Bin Nayef replaced a 27-year veteran, Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz.

Observers speculated that the outgoing governor was dismissed from his post because of his limited success in quelling continued disturbances, which periodically rock the region. The monarch allegedly wished to reinvigorate the security apparatus by selecting someone with the pedigree to respond.

Speculation aside, Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd, who was born in 1950, repeatedly expressed his wish to vacate the post, having been responsible for the Eastern Province since 1985. Interestingly, while Prince Saud Bin Nayef is younger (born in 1956), he shared something very important in common with his predecessor: A linkage to the critical Al Jiluwi cadet branch of the family. Anud Bint Abdul Aziz Bin Musaid Al Jiluwi, Mohammad’s mother, and Jawharah Bint Abdul Aziz Bin Musaid Al Jiluwi, Saud’s mother, are full sisters.

Thus, and on this score at least, the king ensured that the necessary linkages to the critical Eastern Province, which was an Al Jiluwi stronghold for decades, remained intact. This was significant because of key allegiances that wired the entire ruling establishment to the Al Saud.

Still, there is no denying that the Saudi ruler was unhappy that anti-government demonstrations led to more than 16 deaths since February 2011, as Shiite inhabitants clamoured for more political rights as well as the release of jailed relatives. Moreover, what a large segment of the province’s citizens wanted were serious economic investments, to address rampant unemployment and poverty. Whether Prince Saud will now impose a carrot and stick measure to the area was mere speculation.

To be sure, his younger brother — Mohammad Bin Nayef — was Minister of the Interior and for years the kingdom’s point man to deal with counter-terrorism affairs, which implied closer cooperation at this level. Presumably, such coordination might improve local security conditions, even if Riyadh preferred to lower tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. Equally important was Prince Saud’s leadership efforts to accelerate interfaith dialogue, which he shepherded in 2008 when the kingdom organised a high-profile conference with Spain, and that was likely a blueprint for similar engagements in Qatif, Hofuf and throughout the Eastern Province.

Notwithstanding the importance of these routine appointments, what were far more crucial were the king’s additional permutations within the country’s vast bureaucracy, which covered the highest echelons of government.

In the space of a single week, King Abdullah and his heir apparent Prince Salman, ushered in several fresh and dramatic changes that illustrated their commitments to serious reforms. First, the monarch appointed 30 female members to the Consultative Council (Majlis Al Shurah), 27 of whom held doctorate degrees. Second, the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques appointed Shaikh Gaihab Bin Mohammad as president of the Supreme Court, to replace Shaikh Abdul Rahman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Kulliyyah. Third, he ordered a re-constitution of the Hay’at Kibar Al ‘Ulamah [Board of Senior Scholars], with Shaikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah as president, and designated 20 other clerics as members. Fourth, he designated Shaikh Salman Bin Mohammad Bin Mohammad Bin Nashwan as secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Magistracy with the rank of chief of the Court of Appeals (who replaced Shaikh Abdullah Bin Mohammad Bin Abdullah Al Yahyah), while a dozen other senior clerics were entrusted new posts in what appeared to be a significant rejuvenation of the judiciary.

The king’s burden was to “serve his nation” to the best of his abilities, and these recent appointments all confirmed that he was determined to shape the future, by continuing to exercise his “will to power”.