Saudi Arabia's New Heir Leads Revolution of Powerful Millennials

  • Prince Mohammed will be surrounded by cousins and relatives
  • Challenge is to sell Vision 2030 to Saudi’s young population

Saudi Prince's Elevation Ends Struggle for Power

The youngest crown prince in living memory represents a broader youth revolution in Saudi Arabia.

While the elevation of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 31, as heir to the throne this week caught the attention, some of his cousins and relatives whose fathers held key posts in past decades have been installed in the royal court as advisers, sent to the U.S. and Europe as ambassadors and appointed to government institutions in Riyadh.

Together, they are some of the world’s most powerful millennials, increasingly in control of a Gulf kingdom where two-thirds of the population is under 35. The challenge will be to sell Prince Mohammed’s "Vision 2030," his road map to a post-oil economy that will require social upheaval and financial sacrifices never experienced by this generation.

"Having young princes at the helm, who understand young people’s needs, is the message being sent," said Sanam Vakil, associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program. "Perhaps the princes can talk in the same language as the youth and listen to their concerns so they would be able to address them in more effective ways."

Prince Mohammed is likely to be among his country’s youngest kings with a potential for his rule to last half a century. He joins a roster of youth wielding more power elsewhere. French President Emmanuel Macron is 39, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump in the U.S. are 36 and 35 and Ireland’s new prime minister is 38. Then there’s North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. He’s thought to be around 33.

The decision by the prince’s father, King Salman, to pick some of his younger children as well as grandsons and great-grandsons of the kingdom’s founder is meant to ensure a smooth transition in the royal household. It also comes under the watchful eye of the older traditionalists.

Saudi Arabia is going through arguably the biggest changes since the kingdom’s founding in 1932. The new crown prince is aiming to effectively tear up a lot of the social contract that’s kept the royal family in power to create jobs and modernize the economy. It was one of state handouts in return for adherence to an autocracy underpinned by an ultra-conservative brand of Islam.

Read More: Saudis Cling to Tradition

The appointments are a way to protect Prince Mohammed when he becomes monarch, said Nabeel Khoury, a former U.S. State Department official who is now non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, an American organization focusing on foreign affairs.

It avoids the dangers of the old guard "using their old contacts against the new king," he said. "The transition to youth is a good story," but the way it was done "does not necessarily imply good things for the future of the country," he said.

The new appointees include Prince Khalid bin Bandar, who is being sent to Germany as ambassador. His father, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was one of the most powerful Saudi envoys to Washington and later was in charge of intelligence. Another is Prince Abdullah, now an advisor to the royal court and son of Prince Khalid, who served as deputy defense minister.

Read More: a QuickTake Explainer on Saudi Arabia

Along with Prince Mohammed, the king has appointed another young son -- he is under 30 -- as ambassador to the U.S. and another one as minister of state for energy. While other kings have sought to help and encourage their children, "this was the most blatant act of nepotism ever in Saudi Arabia," said Khoury.

There’s also the new interior minister. Born in 1983, Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef will succeed his uncle, the ousted crown prince who successfully managed to halt al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia when he headed the ministry.

With so many young faces in charge, change may come faster to Saudi Arabia, but also potentially without the careful deliberation about the effects on society, said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

"King Salman has been, for decades, the family ‘enforcer’ of discipline and the keeper of the family secrets," said Ulrichsen. "If the family files are not picked up by someone of similar stature to Salman, there is a risk that discipline within the Al Saud may begin to fragment if the unifying glue becomes loosened."

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