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Internal Rift in Saudi Kingdom Poses Tough Foreign Policy Questions for the United States

05/15/2015 07:24 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

By all indications, Americans gave only passing notice to Saudi Arabian King Salman's abrupt and unexpected shuffling of major Cabinet posts -- including the fact the announcement came down at 4 a.m. Riyadh time. But given the kingdom remains a key ally of the United States in an increasingly volatile stretch of the world where we have invested much blood and treasure, the development rates far more scrutiny.

Tremors from this political move have been felt not only among the kingdom's other allies -- the United Kingdom and Jordan -- but enemies such as Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Houthis in Yemen. These changes lay down a path for the kingdom's Sudairi tribe to rule the kingdom for the next 50 years, assuming no public revolt erupts.

Saudi Arabia is a very conservative society, one that does not like sudden changes. Yet it has embarked on this latest course during extraordinary times. Does this royal realignment mean that feuding within the House of Saud is growing tense and could spill over into other areas of governance? Or does it suggest the kingdom is worried that turmoil in the Middle East will eventually impact its domestic agenda?

The latter is likely the answer. Consider:

Since ascendency to the throne in January, King Salman has given away $32 billion to quell any possible demonstrations and limit public support for ISIS terrorism.

Appointment of the king's nephew, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, 55, and his son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, 34, as crown prince and deputy crown prince respectively suggests an urgent need to cement dominance of the Sudairi tribe for years to come. In short, a new sort of stability is sought.

Growing influence of Iran -- especially in the kingdom's neighboring countries of Yemen and Syria -- has sparked political anxiety among the kingdom's ruling elite.

Yet, while providing stability for King Salman, 79, the cabinet shakeup suggests he also wants to demonstrate flexibility when conducting Saudi politics that differs in style and substance from his predecessor and half-brother, the late King Abdallah. I believe this restructuring highlights worries not only about survival of the royal family -- the Sudairi tribe -- but his need to show action in confronting pressures at home involving high unemployment, low oil prices and a significant drop in the royal reserves.

Certainly, priorities are shifting in the kingdom. For instance, those who once advocated lifting restrictions on freedom of the press and granting more democracy are now reconsidering. They witnessed the aftermath of Arab Spring in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt. The kingdom, they reason, just might well be better off under unaccountable, even corrupt royals than the alternative.

All of this signals a greater need for the U.S. policymakers to craft a more thoughtful and consistent foreign policy in the Middle East. Current and subsequent leadership in Saudi Arabia might consider the kingdom's geopolitical/strategic interests first before those of its old ally, the United States. One argues that the Saudi snub of attending the Camp David summit this week is a case in point. Saudi leaders 20 or 30 years younger than those of the past, leaders who are savvy in social media and attuned to the political and social changes sweeping other Muslim countries might conclude the old ways of doing business are no longer useful given the challenges the kingdom faces.

President Obama's presidency is winding down. It's crucial the next president revisit U.S. - Saudi relations because the Middle East isn't going to lapse into peace and prosperity anytime soon. The United States must gauge, for instance, the wisdom and worth of standing firm on basic democratic principles such as freedom of the press and women's rights.

It's already anticipated the final nuclear agreement deal between the United States and Iran -- assuming there even is one -- will exacerbate relations between Riyadh and Washington.

The king's appointment of Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, to the post of foreign minister came as a surprise. This appointment is no coincidence, in my opinion: Al-Jubeir, who is not of the royal family, was chosen because of his knowledge of the Washington establishment. The appointment also suggests Saudi Arabia wants to stand ready to embark on a new course of action if the United States reaches a final agreement with Iran this summer.

It may well be time to ask whether we should continue describing the Saudi regime as one of our closest allies.