In a surprising move on 21st Jun 2017, Saudi Arabiaâs King Salman relieved Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef of his duties and promoted his son Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MbS, from his previous role as deputy crown prince. The promotion means that at just 31 years of age MbS is now next in line to the Saudi throne. As well as assuming the role of Deputy Prime Minister, he will also retain his current portfolio which includes defence, most notably overseeing Saudiâs war in Yemen.
The promotion of MbS was not unexpected; the young princeâs ascent has been swift over the last two years. The timing however was a surprise, given that the Gulf remains in the midst of a diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia and the UAE imposing an economic blockade on Qatar three weeks ago. It is also notable due to its disruption of the long standing succession model in Saudi, which has always been brother-to-brother as opposed to father-son.
Rise to power
MbS is the eldest son of the King Salmanâs third wife, Fahdah bint Falah bin Sultan. Unlike many Saudi princes including his brothers, he did not study abroad but completed a law degree in Riyadh. After working for several state bodies, MbS was appointed as special advisor to his father, then the governor of Riyadh.
When King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz died in January 2015, Salman assumed the throne and immediately made two key appointments; promoting Mohammed bin Nayef to Crown Prince and his own son, MbS, to Minister of Defence. Nayefâs appointment as Crown Prince marked the first time a grandson of the Kingdomâs father, Ibn Saud, moved onto the line of succession. MbS quickly became known as gatekeeper to his father, who is rumoured to be suffering from dementia. He also set about making a name for himself by instituting some ambitious policies.
Saudi Arabia is currently facing a number of serious social and economic problems. Low oil prices have cause a budget deficit, placing immense strain on the countryâs generous welfare system. An estimated 70% of Saudiâs population is under 30 and facing limited employment opportunities due to the narrow education the State provides; rich in Islamic education but poor in maths, science, technical and analytical skills.
To address these issues MbS launched Vision 2030, an ambitious plan aimed at modernising the Saudi state and economy. At its heart is a programme of âSaudisation,â with improved training and education aimed at creating a better skilled workforce who can then replace the large number of expatriate workers in the country. Roughly a third of Saudi residents are foreign passport holders.
Attempting to modernise the Saudi economy has also led to a liberalising of the strict social and cultural norms in the country. The religious police who used to patrol Riyadh were stripped of their arresting powers. Public music and film screenings have been introduced. Not everyone supports these liberalising moves however. More traditional sectors of Saudi society feel change is coming too fast in the Kingdom.
It was also MbS who launched Saudiâs aerial campaign against the Houthis in Yemen two years ago. The aim of Operation Desert Storm was presumably a quick and decisive victory which would cement MbSâ military reputation. That has not been the case however as the Houthi rebels cling decidedly to their territory; Saudi bombardment has destroyed much of Yemenâs infrastructure and created a humanitarian disaster where famine and a cholera outbreak are killing thousands. The power vacuum has also allowed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to expand their influence.
Defence is an area where now ousted Crown Prince Nayef was considered to have the edge on MbS. Nayef had years of experience in security and intelligence. Educated in the US, he also studied with the FBI and Scotland Yard before taking up a position with the Interior Ministry. Often called the âPrince of counter-terrorism,â he was considered to be amongst the most pro-American of the Saudi leadership and he led the Saudi fight against Al-Qaeda- a difficult job in a country where many of the elites privately supported the terrorist group.
What it means for the region
The promotion of MbS to Crown Prince was just one of a number of noteworthy appointments which have put a new generation of Saudi royals into positions of power. The country now has a 31 year old Crown Prince, a 33 year old interior Minister and an ambassador to the US who is only 28. Saudi Arabia has not witnessed such a broad generational shift since its founding.
Domestically, MbS has a keen grasp of economics and has demonstrated a clear vision for reforming Saudiâs economy, including proposing the privatisation of state oil company Aramco- likely to be the largest IPO in history. But in terms of security and defence, his short record is rather mixed. The war in Yemen is largely viewed as a political misstep. It has so far cost at least 10,000 civilian lives – the majority of whom died from Saudi bombardment.
Regionally, Wednesdayâs events make clear that Saudi Arabia, working with the UAE, will continue to pursue a more aggressive policy – continuing the conflict in Yemen, increasing political pressure on Qatar and taking a hard line on Iran. MbSâ relationship with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan is seen as crucial to his ascent to power. Together, they have crafted a dominant regional policy which reinforces their world view of Iran as an existential threat.
It is not yet known when MbS will ascend to the throne; his father is 81 years old. But there is no doubt MbS is already the power broker in the country. He is Saudi Arabiaâs main point of contact with the White House, overseeing sweeping cultural changes under the auspices of Vision 2030 and as head of Aramco, is driving Saudi oil policy. Having consolidated his power and secured his ascent to the throne, MbS is sure to continue pursuing his ambitious vision for a new Saudi Arabia.
Report written by Louise Hogan