Saudi Arabia’s New Crown Prince: Young Reformer or Inexperienced Upstart?
Four months after Salman bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud was crowned king of Saudi Arabia on 23 January 2015, he appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), as deputy crown prince – putting him second in line to the throne – a position the late King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz established alongside the Allegiance Council to clarify succession in the absence of the crown prince.
Directly after becoming king, Salman appointed MBS as minister of defence and secretary general of the Royal Court. As such, MBS was his father’s gatekeeper, giving him significant powers. At the time, MBS was a low-profile royal. Little was known about him, and his age – he was barely 30 – raised concerns about his eligibility and competency to hold these posts.
However, these were not the first official positions the young prince (born 31 August 1985) had held in the oil-rich kingdom. In October 2011, when Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz died, Salman became minister of defence, marking his ascension to power. Following the death of his brother, Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, in June 2012, Salman was named crown prince. Throughout, MBS was Salman’s special advisor. In this capacity, MBS gained experience in the public realm.
In March 2015, MBS, the youngest defence minister in the world, launched a costly Saudi Arabian-led intervention against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, with little, if any, idea of how to end it. In what was supposed to be a show of strength and boldness, the prince failed to coordinate the intervention fully across the security services or to inform the Saudi National Guard Minister Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who was out of the country when the first air strikes were carried out.
However, the young prince’s boldness has so far largely worked in his favour. On 29 January 2015, he was named chair of the newly established Council for Economic and Development Affairs, enabling him to lay out his ‘Vision 2030’, an ambitious 15-year reform programme aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy away from its dependency on oil and reigning back public spending. The programme includes the partial privatization of the state oil company Saudi Aramco.
“The change [in succession] is a huge boost to the economic reform programme … Prince Mohammed bin Salman is its architect,” John Sfakianakis, director of the Gulf Research Centre, told Reuters.
The economic overhaul has gone hand-in-hand with an easing of Saudi Arabia’s strict Islamic traditions. Vision 2030 thus states, ‘Our vision is a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method.’ In October 2016, Prince Mohammed successfully stripped the religious police of its powers of arrest, a move unprecedented in the kingdom’s history. Religious officers are no longer allowed to detain people and instead must report violators to the police or drug squad officers.
He has distanced himself from the Council of Senior Scholars, a group of elderly clerics who set official religious policy and often release religious opinions that disgruntle the younger generation. He also hired an army of consultants and image-makers to boost his popularity among the Saudi population.
The strategy seems to have paid off. He has risen rapidly in the kingdom’s power structure, often at the expense of more senior Saudi royals, who, according to tradition, might have had a better shot at the throne.
Many Saudis, who see him as dynamic, hard-working and ambitious, believe he is exactly what the kingdom needs. Hoda al-Helaissi, a member of the kingdom’s advisory Shura Council, told the New York Times, “He is speaking in the language of the youth. The country for too long has been looking through the lenses of the older generation, and we need to look at who is going to carry the torch to the next generation.”
The Guardian newspaper reported a senior Saudi official as saying, “Private enterprise is being courted, cinemas are in the pipeline, concerts have been held – though only for men – and the touchstone issue of women being allowed to drive is again on the table.”
But not everyone is a fan. Critics have described the prince as power hungry and pointed to his inexperience and sometimes impulsive decisions, like Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in Yemen, which has cost the kingdom billions of dollar, and cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism.
On 21 June 2017, King Salman promoted Prince Mohammed to crown prince, putting him next in line to inherit the kingdom he has been trying to mould for the past two years. By doing so, King Salman replaced his nephew and his son’s main rival, 57-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, overturning eight decades of royal custom and restructuring the kingdom’s circle of power.
By sidelining Mohammed bin Nayef, who won the respect of Western officials for his efforts to combat al-Qaeda during his tenure as interior minister, the king also marginalized a large cadre of older princes, many of whom were educated abroad and have decades of government experience that the younger prince lacks.
In a move probably intended to dispel rumours of internal divisions, Mohammed bin Nayef met with Mohammed bin Salman directly after his appointment and was shown repeatedly on state media pledging allegiance to the new crown prince.
With no obstacles left in his way, Prince Mohammed may move swiftly to implement his vision, all while giving the kingdom something it has not had in over half a century: a young, energetic king who could rule for decades. Whether he succeeds or fails, Saudi Arabia as we know it will never be the same again.