Saudi king replaces top brass in latest shake-up

(AFP) – Saudi Arabia has replaced top military commanders, including its chief of staff, in the latest move to bring fresh blood into the kingdom’s upper ranks.

The changes, announced in a string of royal decrees late Monday, come a month before the third anniversary of a Saudi-led military intervention in the Yemen war which has killed thousands and triggered a humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia for decades has been home to some of the world’s most restrictive policies, banning women from driving or mixing with men and outlawing cinemas and other forms of entertainment.

But since King Salman named his son, Prince Mohammed, as heir to the throne in June, the kingdom has witnessed a string of reform, launched at breakneck speed and aimed at moving Saudi Arabia away from its economic dependence on oil.

The monarch on Monday replaced the heads of the ground forces and air defences as well as several deputy ministers, and in a rare move named a woman to the government.

“Termination of the services of General Abdul Rahman bin Saleh al-Bunyan, Chief of Staff,” the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) announced, adding that Fayyad al-Ruwaili had been appointed as his replacement.

No official reason was given for the sweeping overhaul.

State media said, however, the decisions were taken “upon the recommendation” of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also defence minister and widely seen as the power behind the throne.

– ‘Indigenous defence’ –

Al-Bunyan’s retirement comes after he inaugurated a global arms exhibition this week in the Saudi capital Riyadh by the Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), the state-owned defence company.

Tamadar bint Yousef al-Ramah was appointed the deputy minister of labour and social development, a rare senior government post for a woman in the conservative kingdom.

Prince Turki bin Talal, the brother of billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, was appointed deputy governor of the southern Assir Province.

Prince Al-Waleed, dubbed the Warren Buffett of Saudi Arabia, was among the 200-some princes, ministers and tycoons detained in Riyadh’s luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel over what the government calls elite corruption.

The crackdown is widely viewed as a mark of Prince Mohammed’s consolidation of power.

The 32-year-old has pushed major economic and social reforms since his appointment. Women will be permitted to drive come June and have been recruited to work ground service in airports.

The young prince has also pursued an assertive regional policy, including leading a military intervention in neighbouring Yemen since March 2015 against the Iran-aligned Huthi Shiite rebels.

Analysts say the changes point to a strategy to create a self-contained defence industry.

“A military transformation is underway in Saudi Arabia,” Theodore Karasik, a senior advisor at the consultancy Gulf States Analytics, told AFP.

“The changes come on the heels of the SAMI exhibition, which is a critical part of the Prince Mohammed’s reform plan to create an indigenous defence program,” he said.

Monday’s reshuffle also came hours after six Yemeni soldiers, allied with Riyadh, were killed in friendly fire by the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and its military allies last year landed on a United Nations blacklist over the killing and maiming of children in Yemen, which the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

More than 9,200 people have been killed in the conflict and another nearly 2,200 Yemenis have died of cholera since the 2015 intervention, according to the World Health Organization.

The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen is seen as a proxy war with Riyadh’s regional rival Iran.

On Monday, Russia vetoed a UN draft resolution presented by Britain and strongly backed by the United States that would have pressured Iran over its failure to block supplies of missiles to the Huthi rebels.

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