By Ananya Upadhyay
The King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, gave the world a gigantic surprise yesterday. As if his overnight decision to sack the topmost leadership in the defence forces wasn’t shocking enough, his royal decree also allowed women to join the armed and police forces, which seems to be an ultra-radical step for an ultra-conservative country. The army’s Chief of Staff, along with the heads of the ground and air forces, was replaced in a series of late-night decrees issued on Monday, reported the state news. Several political appointments were also announced, including the promotion of a woman, Tamadar bint Yousef al-Ramah, to the position of Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Development.
Reasons for the radical changes
Although no official explanation was given for the sackings, Saudi Arabia’s military weakness in the civil war of Yemen, in which it is heavily involved, explains it. Saudi Arabia has aggressively pursued the war in Yemen, against the armed Houthi movement (which has ties to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief rival) to reinstate the recognised president. The kingdom has received international criticism for a stalled conflict that has killed nearly 6,000 civilians.
The changes were announced ahead of the Crown Prince Mohammed’s three-week trip in March, to London and then to the United States, where he is expected to visit Washington DC and five other US cities. “This is a big moment for them…It’s not only about making the Ministry of Defence more efficient. It’s part of the negotiations in the US and the UK about defence and armaments,” said Theodore Karasik of Gulf State Analytics, a private advisory group in Washington.
A mini shock-therapy by the Crown Prince
These strategic changes have been attributed to Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the Defense Minister and also the royal heir. MBS has been garnering international attention for introducing social and economic reforms in one of the most culturally orthodox states in the world. These rapid revolutionary changes, including a huge crackdown on high-profile corrupt officials and businessmen, are being perceived as a ‘shock’ of modernisation to the country, intended to moderate rigid and regressive Islamic norms. The reforms include allowing women to drive and attend sports events in stadiums, start their own businesses, re-opening of cinema halls, allowing non-related men and women to mingle in specific tourist zones, etc. The world’s youngest office holder at 32, Salman has consolidated tremendous power and is largely backed by a generation of millennials who are hungry for change.
In an interview, Salman said that this military re-shuffle had been planned for several years to get better results for Saudi’s defence spending. He also added that the kingdom, with the world’s fourth-largest defence budget, had only the 20th best army and described ambitious plans to mobilise Yemeni tribes against the Houthis and their Iranian backers in Yemen, to put an end to the war that has caused an unfathomable loss of life and property.
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