Riyadh, Feb 27 (IANS) The Saudi King has sacked the country’s Army Chief and other top generals and named new ministers and governors across the kingdom in a major shake-up in the government and military leadership amid a three-year-war with Shia Muslim rebels in Yemen.
A series of royal decrees approved by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud on Monday night announced the changes as part of a wider shake-up in royal advisory positions and provincial governorships in the government, especially in the Defence Ministry.
The surprising changes came ahead of a visit to the UK, the US and France by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also the Defence Minister, amid global protests against Saudi Arabia’s conduct of the war in Yemen.
According to the decrees, Saudi Armed Forces Chief General Abdulrahman al-Banyan and Air Force Commander Mohammed al-Qatibi were asked to retire and six generals were promoted to be appointed for senior commander posts.
General Abdulrahman al-Banyan, previously Chief of the Joint Staff of Saudi Arabia’s armed forces, was appointed to be an adviser to the royal court, Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya reported.
He was set to be replaced by Lieutenant General Fahd bin Turki, formerly in charge of the country’s ground forces.
No reason for the sackings was given. But the changes come as the Saudi Army is fighting a three-year old unpopular war in Yemen that has attracted widespread international reprisal following civilian killings in the impoverished neighbouring country.
The war has left thousands of combatants and non-combatants dead since 2015.
Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Britain, France and the US next week will be the most exhaustive foreign tour since he took up in July last year.
In Britain, the Crown Prince, popularly known by his MBS initials, is expected to meet Prime Minister Theresa May. Britain has a close military tie-up with Saudi Arabia and provides training and advice for the Saudi Air Force. Britain also sells arms to Saudi Arabia and services its fleet of BAE Tornado jets.
According to the British media reports, protests were being organised against the UK’s military support to Saudi armed forces amid the Yemen war.
The sacking of top generals and sweeping changes in the government are seen as another bid by the 32-year-old Crown Prince to consolidate power after he ordered the arrests of many princes and ministers in a corruption purge in November last year.
Most of them have been released after settling claims with the government.
The Saudi intervention in the Yemen conflict was Mohammed bin Salman’s initiative — one of the first indications of just how dramatically he was going to break away from the country’s traditional caution.
His father King Salman, now 82, ascended to the throne in 2015. MBS was elevated to become deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister. He then replaced his cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as the Crown Prince last year.
The cost for Yemen itself has been a humanitarian disaster, while it has also drained Saudi coffers in a time of austerity.
A series of political appointments were also announced on Monday night, including the rare appointment of a female Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Development, Tamadar bint Yousef al-Ramah.
Prince Turki bin Talal was appointed new Deputy Governor of the southwest Asir province. He is the brother of billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who was detained in the anti-corruption drive and released two months later.
This is another sweeping overhaul of Saudi institutions that has become the hallmark of the reign of King Salman, although the driving force is once again his son and heir, Crown Prince.
(Sarwar Kashani is in Riyadh to cover the International Humanitarian Forum at the invitation of the Saudi government. He can be contacted at [email protected])