The meteoric rise of Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince
ABU DHABI // Soon after a surprise royal decree on Wednesday morning placed Prince Mohammed bin Salman directly in line to be king, replacing his older cousin, the two men met at Safa palace in Mecca.
The elder prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, had been relieved of his position as crown prince as well as his long-time role as interior minister, effectively ending the powerful security chief’s career. He had come to pledge his loyalty and give his blessing to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who bowed to kiss his hand, in a show of respect.
“I will rest now, and may God help you,” the outgoing crown prince said to his successor. “We will continue to take your guidance and advice,” Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in response.
With that exchange, the crown prince, in his early thirties, cemented a stunning ascension to power and responsibility that will shape the kingdom — and likely the broader region — for decades, as he works to steer his country through unprecedented economic and social change, and towards a more aggressive assertion of regional power.
Prince Mohammed’s rise began perhaps even before his father was named king in January 2015. The young prince reportedly became close to King Abdullah in the monarch’s later years, where the relative liberal and his nephew bonded over a shared vision for the kingdom’s future.
Prince Mohammed began mapping out ideas for restructuring the sclerotic government system, made slow moving and resistant to necessary change by its competing centres of power among the vast royal family, religious establishment and influential non-royal figures. Key to this was diversifying the economy away from its sapping dependence on oil revenue, and changing the unsustainable cradle-to-grave deal with Saudi’s 20 million citizens.
When King Salman took the throne, the monarch’s favourite son and close advisor finally had the opportunity to begin making his vision into reality. He became the most powerful deputy crown prince in the kingdom’s history, with control of the defence ministry, the state oil company, and economic policy.
The cautious — and inefficient — Saudi policy process was swept aside, as the new deputy crown prince launched a military intervention in Yemen and rolled out a plan for a radical reshaping of the economy.
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The prince has a close relationship with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and the UAE made a strategic investment in an alliance with Riyadh, as the young reformer gained power.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s accumulation of power, his inexperience, breaking with tradition and his curtailing of power among other royal factions and clergy has sparked rumours of intrigue and manoeuvring against him. Among many Saudis, particularly those now middle aged or older, Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef is beloved for his campaign to defeat Al Qaeda’s terror campaign in the kingdom. In Washington as well, the outgoing crown prince was the most prominent figure in the relationship, and whose intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism cooperation helped make many careers.
But many younger Saudis — more than half of whom are under 25 — have seen Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s rise as a sign of hope in a climate of uncertainty and fear over an economic future in which oil can no longer be relied upon. In parallel, young people also yearn for more social freedom.
Prince Mohammed has already shown that he is willing to reduce the power of conservative religious forces — to make life more enjoyable for young people and keep qualified Saudis in the country, but also to bring women into the workforce, a key component of economic sustainability.
An entertainment authority was established last year and has invested in creating entertainment options in a country where movie theatres are banned, and offered incentives to entrepreneurs in the nascent sector. When conservatives complained, the minister said they should “stay home”. He later said his remarks were taken out of context, but the episode illustrated the challenges such reforms will face.
It had been assumed that Prince Mohammed would likely replace his cousin before his elderly father dies, but many thought that would also hinge on his ability to demonstrate successes in the policies he spearheaded, and ability to consolidate power to beat back opposition from conservatives and others. The cautious, conservative Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef was always considered an option if the bold new path in the end did not work.
But now, that option has disappeared, and the roadblocks, for now, are gone.