Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz has sacked one of his most senior aides after he was seen slapping a photographer on live television.
The incident was caught on camera at Riyadh International Airport on Sunday as the Saudi monarch formally welcomed Morocco’s King Mohammed VI to the country.
Television footage showed chief of royal protocol Mohammed al-Tobayshi standing behind the monarchs when he suddenly turns to the photographer and strikes him hard in the face.
Though no official reason was given for the change, the decision to replace al-Tobayshi has been hailed as a ‘great day’ for journalists in Saudi Arabia.
Reporter Abdullah al-Bergawi told Gulf News: ‘Removing the head of the royal protocol in support of a journalist is a clear consolidation of the status of the media and a victory for journalism.
‘King Salman is again showing that no-one is above the law and that all people, officials or not, are to be held responsible for their words and deeds and for not respecting people’s right to dignity.’
Others hailed King Salman as a ‘champion of the needy’ for choosing to replace the senior aid in what was widely considered to be a decisive show of ‘justice’ and a refusal to abuse power.
The fact the slap was freely broadcast on Saudi television had already been hailed as a milestone in a country where criticism of the royal family and their aides is incredibly rare.
The decision to replace al-Tobayshi came just one month after the Saudi king sacked his newly appointed health minister after footage circulated aggressively arguing with a member of the public.
And according to BBC News, King Salman also punished senior Saudi royal Prince Mamdouh bin Abdul Rahman after he made what appeared to be racist comments on a TV talk show.
Changes in Saudi Arabia’s leadership have concentrated power in an inner circle of the Al Saud dynasty, removing constraints on the monarch and making the conservative kingdom’s strategic positions less predictable.
The world’s top oil exporter has always prized stability, developing policies slowly and altering them rarely, partly because of the need to balance rivalries among ruling family members and their conflicting interests.
That may now be changing. Since inheriting the throne from his brother in January, King Salman has embarked on a war in neighbouring Yemen, restructured the oil sector and shaken up domestic governance, including the line of succession.
Whether this is the beginning of a much more assertive foreign policy aimed at countering rival Iran, a new energy strategy or a more authoritarian security approach, as analysts have speculated, remains unclear.
But what is increasingly apparent is that Riyadh’s new rulers enjoy more scope to make dramatic and unexpected interventions than their predecessors did.
‘If the king wants, for example, to send ground troops to Yemen, he doesn’t have to call the whole family to do that any more,’ said Jamal Khashoggi, general manager of television station al-Arab.
While the monarch has always had the last word in policy decisions, he has usually had to win consensus among a group of powerful princes, often his own brothers, for any big changes.
That no longer appears to be the case, as a growing number of offices are absorbed into the hands of a new triumvirate of the king and his two heirs, his nephew Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and his son Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
‘If you look at the two princes, they are controlling the state under the supervision of the king,’ said Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political scientist.