Customarily, when Saudi royals consider who their next king should be, they put a priority on continuity and power-sharing among the many princes. If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman succeeds his father to the throne, he’ll have bucked that tradition. Just 32 years old, the prince has leapfrogged a generation of more experienced uncles and cousins to the brink of the top position in Saudi Arabia, one of the last remaining absolute monarchies. Not since the reign of the country’s founder, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, has so much power been in one man’s hands. The prince vows to deliver revolutionary change, 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 push one of the world’s most conservative societies into the modern age. His critics say he veers into recklessness.
Recent developments in Saudi Arabia appear to have strengthened the prince’s position. Most dramatically, security forces on Nov. 4 arrested princes, ministers, former top officials and billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a major shareholder in Citigroup Inc., in an unprecedented anti-corruption drive that analysts said would help to consolidate his power. With King Salman bin Abdulaziz 81 years old, speculation has mounted that he will abdicate to ensure his favorite son’s succession. For now, Prince Mohammed essentially runs the country. He already controls the defense ministry, the central bank, the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, the state-owned oil producer Saudi Aramco and a rejuvenated sovereign wealth fund. He’s the leading force behind the government’s transformative plan for the future, Vision 2030, which foresees a more open society and diversified economy. He’s won some popular support, especially among the young, with reforms like lifting a prohibition on women drivers, introducing public entertainment such as concerts and stripping the religious police of their arrest powers. On the other hand, his announcement that Aramco would be partially privatized shocked Saudis who regard the company as a sacred national patrimony. Prince Mohammed is aggressive on national security matters, especially regarding Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival for power in the region. He’s been a driver of the country’s bombing campaign in Yemen since 2015 on behalf of a government ousted by Iran-backed rebels. And he was behind a cutoff of ties with neighboring Qatar in 2017 in part over its friendliness to Iran.
Prince Mohammed, who has one wife and four children, told Bloomberg Businessweek in a rare interview that growing up in the royal court he saw two options for himself: adapting to the monarchy as it was or pursuing a new vision. He said he was inspired to choose the second by technology pioneers Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. After graduating with a law degree from King Saud University in Riyadh and working briefly in government, he entered politics in 2009. He was an adviser to his father, then the governor of Riyadh province. Early on, the prince gained a reputation for working hard, like his father, and for being demanding, like his mother, who he says never overlooked his mistakes. After then-King Abdullah named Prince Mohammad’s father defense minister, the monarch initially barred the prince from entering the ministry because of rumors he was disruptive and power-hungry. After becoming king in 2015, his father immediately began to concentrate power in Prince Mohammed’s hands. King Salman named his son crown prince in June, stripping the title from Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, the country’s prominent anti-terrorism czar, who was fired as interior minister and, according to some reports, placed under house arrest. The events unsettled a country accustomed to cohesion within the royal family.
Prince Mohammed’s raw ambition and monopolization of power have antagonized some members of the royal family, stirring speculation that they will resist his policies as their stake in the government dwindles. Skeptics worry that Prince Mohammed is too inexperienced, and that no one will remain to check his power when many of the state’s seasoned leaders have been moved aside to make way for him and less powerful princes of his generation. Critics of his policies note that the campaign in Yemen has failed to dislodge the rebels while contributing to what United Nations officials call the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Breaking ties with Qatar, they say, only drove that country into a closer relationship with Iran. The prince’s supporters see his youth as an advantage in a country in which 70 percent of the population is under age 30. It could give him multiple decades to achieve his ambitious agenda; the seven Saudi kings so far have come to power on average at 64.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake on the strains affecting Saudi Arabia and another on Saudi Aramco.
- “Saudi Arabia in Transition,” a report by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
- A Bloomberg Businessweek profile of the prince.
- Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan.
First published Nov. 1, 2017
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Lisa Beyer at firstname.lastname@example.org