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The Rise of a Prince Ends Doubts Over Saudi Arabia’s Direction

Mohammed bin Salman’s elevation as Saudi heir also has international ramifications.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Photographer: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP

With the anointment of Prince Mohammed bin Salman as heir to the Saudi throne, any doubts over the continuation of policies that have shaken up the Middle East have gone.

Western diplomats already referred to the 31-year-old as “Mr. Everything,” because of his control over most aspects of domestic, foreign and defense affairs. His elevation ends a behind-the-scenes struggle for power and answers the question of what would happen to his plans for Saudi Arabia when King Salman, now 81, dies or steps aside.

The most ambitious of these, Vision 2030, seeks to recalibrate the economy to end the country’s near-total dependence on oil revenue. But internationally, there are also ramifications.

Saudi Arabia's Shake-Up

Last month, the prince again raised the stakes in the regional rivalry with Iran, saying that dialog was “impossible" as they fight a proxy war in Yemen. He also led a multi-nation effort to isolate neighboring Qatar, causing a rift among fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. That also looks set to turn into another long and potentially fruitless test of wills as Iran and Turkey come to Qatar's aid.

“The switch offers him the legitimacy and consensus of becoming the next king and that will validate his vision, his plans and his policies,” said Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs. “There were a lot of question marks about the future of Saudi Arabia and the transition. Now this debate has ended.”

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Mohammed bin Salman in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. 
Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Widely known as MBS, he was made crown prince just after dawn in Riyadh, displacing his older cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, who was also stripped of his post as interior minister in charge of domestic security forces and counter-terrorism policy.

The move was neither a shock nor a coup, and it means he could be running the kingdom for decades to come. What's more, his tough approach to the intractable problems of the Middle East would appear to mesh well with U.S. President Donald Trump, who visited Saudi Arabia last month.

Trump called the new crown prince Wednesday to offer congratulations on his elevation, the White House said in a statement. Trump and the prince “committed to close cooperation to advance our shared goals of security, stability, and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond,” according to the statement.

Prince Mohammed also has come to know Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, having dined together twice, once in Washington and once in Riyadh. 

What Next?

The problem is what comes next. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of State questioned Saudi Arabia's justification at striking out at Qatar by cutting it off from diplomatic and transport links.

The bombing campaign in Yemen aimed at destroying the rebel Houthi forces that Saudi Arabia sees as proxies for Iran, meanwhile, appears to have no end in sight. Two years later, it has become bogged down, bloody and increasingly unpopular.

“On the foreign policy side he's also embroiled Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Qatar without an exit strategy,” said James Dorsey, senior fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. These aren’t changes of direction for Saudi Arabia, but “what he has done is to stretch up a notch and put some very sharp edges on it, and at this point those are backfiring.”

Why King Salman chose this time to change the line of succession remains unclear. There have been rumors about his health and alleged plans to abdicate almost from the moment he became king, in January 2015. The amount of power he placed in the hands of his relatively inexperienced son had rankled older members of the royal family. And religious conservatives were always going to resist efforts at gradual liberalization in one of the world's most repressive societies.

King Salman in Riyadh on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

MBS’s plans require tearing up the social contract that's kept the family in power since his grandfather, Ibn Saud, founded the kingdom in 1932. It was one of state largesse in exchange for obedience to an austere autocracy.

That said, there's a strong desire for change among many Saudis. Official statistics show that half the population is under 25. He remains popular among the young, even though some Saudis are becoming unhappy as subsidies and public sector jobs are withdrawn, according to Dorsey.

That means his controversial plans for selling off parts of the state energy behemoth Saudi Aramco and other aspects of Vision 2030 are also likely to move forward, according to Ayham Kamel, director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia Group, in London.

“Investors had doubts that Vision 2030 is real or that the man behind it would actually be the ruler of Saudi Arabia. Those doubts will largely evaporate after this,” he said. Still, with power will come the responsibility for what goes wrong, said Kamel, and “that part is going to be fundamentally different.”

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