Not since the reign of the country’s founder, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, has so much power been in one man’s hands in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman isn’t king, yet. But the 35-year-old crown prince essentially runs the country for his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is 85. The prince leapfrogged a generation of more experienced uncles and cousins to the brink of the top position in one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. He vowed to deliver revolutionary change by moderating religious strictures in the land that gave birth to Islam and weening the largest crude exporter off its dependence on oil. His supporters say his boldness is just what’s needed to salvage an unsustainable economy that was on the brink of sinking. His critics say he is dictatorial, unpredictable and reckless.
Questions about Prince Mohammed’s fitness for leadership were raised anew when the government of President Joe Biden released a U.S. intelligence report Feb. 26 assessing that the prince approved the 2018 operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A citizen of Saudi Arabia and critic of its government, Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia has denied that Prince Mohammed had any role in the killing. Under the prince’s leadership, Saudi authorities have cracked down on expressions of dissent. They’ve arrested dozens of clerics, academics, writers and women’s rights activists. In early 2020, authorities detained the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, along with the king’s own brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, and accused them of undermining the state, according to people familiar with the matter. A commission headed by Crown Prince Mohammed spearheaded the arrests in 2017 of more than 100 people, including prominent businessmen and royals, who were forced to hand over billions of dollars to the state in what authorities called an anti-corruption operation. Prince Mohammed has overseen a loosening of some restrictions, including lifting a prohibition on women drivers, introducing public entertainment such as concerts and cinemas, and stripping the religious police of their arrest powers. Those are in line with the government’s plan for the future, Vision 2030, which foresees a more open society and a diversified economy. The latter goal is being financed in part by a partial privatization of the state-owned oil producer Saudi Aramco. In a state where power-sharing among the many princes has been the norm, Prince Mohammed already controls the defense ministry, the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, Aramco and a rejuvenated sovereign wealth fund. He has taken an assertive approach on national security matters. That’s especially the case regarding Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival for power in the region which it’s blamed for attacks on Saudi oil installations that rocked global markets. He’s spearheaded the kingdom’s airstrikes on Yemen since 2015 on behalf of a government ousted by Iran-backed rebels.