The sudden elevation of Mohammed bin Salman to the position of crown prince and heir apparent to his father, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, is a welcome surprise for many Saudis. It is also a matter of deep concern for some of the kingdom’s neighbours, notably Iran, which is locked in a region-wide power struggle with its Arab arch-rival that increasingly risks sucking in the US and Russia.
For younger Saudis frustrated by the kingdom’s hidebound traditionalism and inflexible religious laws, Prince Mohammed is seen as a reform-minded new broom who could sweep the country to a brighter, more open future. For critics at home and abroad, he is a dangerous and inexperienced firebrand who could undermine stability and lead Saudi Arabia to unintentional disaster.
The most unusual aspect of Prince Mohammed’s rise is his age. At 31, he is more than 25 years younger than his discarded predecessor as crown prince, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. In a country of 31 million where 70% of people are under the age of 30 and which is accustomed to the rule of old men, the new royal heir represents a significant generational power shift.
The prince already held key positions in the national hierarchy. Two years ago his father appointed him defence minister and also placed him in overall charge of the country’s oil industry, the font of the kingdom’s wealth. He used his new prominence to boost his profile at home and abroad, apparently intent on clearing a path to the throne. In the process, he earned a reputation as a hawk in matters of national security, especially over the 2015 Saudi armed intervention in Yemen.
The king’s decision last week to promote his favourite son again so quickly, placing him first in the line of succession, may reflect his desire to head off a power struggle involving bin Nayef, a respected former interior minister renowned for cracking down on al-Qaida, and his traditionalist supporters. The move has sparked speculation that King Salman, aged 81 and reportedly not in the best of health, may be considering abdication at some future date.
In a show of near-unity, King Salman’s edict was endorsed by 31 of 34 members of the Allegiance Council, made up of senior members of the ruling Saud family. In a ceremony in the holy city of Mecca on Wednesday evening, Saudi state television showed royal family members, clerics and officials queuing up to shake hands with the young prince or kiss his shoulder. Mohammed bin Nayef was seen pledging allegiance to Prince Mohammed, who knelt and kissed his older cousin’s hand, saying: “We will not cease taking your guidance and advice.”
While the abrupt transfer of power went smoothly – Iran dubbed it a “soft coup” – there could be rougher times ahead, for there is no doubting Prince Mohammed harbours high ambitions for his country as well as himself.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy since the days of its modern-day founder, Abdulaziz al-Saud (Ibn Saud), is often characterised in the west as a backward, inward-looking state, steeped in ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim ideology and outdated social conventions, particularly in its denial of women’s rights. It also stands accused of prime responsibility for the spread of hardline Wahhabi Islamist beliefs that have inspired groups such as the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaida and Islamic State.
Since emerging from relative obscurity two years ago, Prince Mohammed, widely known by the user-friendly monicker of MbS, has championed social and economic reforms under the catch-all title of Vision 2030. One change was his removal of the power of arrest from the feared religious police. Bloomberg commentator Leonid Bershidsky noted his creation of an Entertainment Authority, which has organised concerts and talks of opening cinemas. “[The authority] has even held a comic book convention at which men and women reportedly danced in the same big hall. Top clerics have been up in arms, but presumably, young people like it,” he said.
Prince Mohammed has also vowed to diversify the economy, reduce national dependence on oil revenues, and encourage greater entrepreneurship in a country where two-thirds of the workforce is employed by the state. He chairs the supreme board of Aramco, making him the first royal family member to oversee the state oil company directly. A controversial IPO (initial public offering), putting 5% of the company up for sale, is planned next year.
The prince’s modernising iconoclasm at home is matched by a determination to transform Saudi Arabia into a pivotal player abroad. His motivation appears twofold: assuming the leadership role in the Sunni Muslim Arab world that Egypt, racked by revolution and counter-revolution, has to some degree forfeited since the Arab spring of 2011; and meeting the expanding challenge posed by Shia Muslim Iran.
His defence and foreign policy decisions appear mostly driven by this latter factor. The 2015 military intervention in Yemen’s civil war, with the Saudis at the head of an Arab coalition, came in response to Iran’s support for the Houthi Shia rebels there. The intervention has failed to deter Iran, and has led to large numbers of civilian casualties, serious humanitarian problems and a spreading famine.
Iran’s purported machinations in Bahrain lie behind Saudi support for the policies enacted since 2011 to subdue the country’s restive Shia majority. In Syria, too, the Saudis have taken sides with Sunni Arab militias and Kurdish forces (and western countries) opposed to the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Lebanon, home to Tehran-allied Hezbollah, has also become a virtual battlefield for Prince Mohammed’s proxy war with Iran. Speaking last month, he seemed to be hardening his stance, declaring that dialogue with Tehran was impossible because its Shia-led theocracy wanted to impose its suzerainty over the entire Muslim world, including the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. “We are a primary target for the Iranian regime… We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran,” he said. Such statements underscore concerns that Prince Mohammed is a hothead who could plunge the region into open conflict. Iran’s leadership is dismissive, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei describing the prince and his fellow leaders in Riyadh as “idiots”. But hardliners in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard take a harsher line amid loose talk about the inevitability of the coming war with the Saudis.
Last month’s rupture with Qatar, ostensibly over its alleged support for terrorism, may also be seen in this context. Qatar alone among the Gulf states has maintained reasonably amicable relations with Iran. For Prince Mohammed, this is tantamount to treachery – hence the Saudi mobilisation of Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE in a joint diplomatic and commercial boycott. As with his Yemeni misadventure, the counter-productive result, so far, has been a deepening of Iran’s involvement and leverage.
Prince Mohammed may be inexperienced, but his political instincts are sharp. Using his platform as deputy crown prince and defence minister, he travelled in recent months to the US, Russia and China, getting himself known and arguing his case with the world’s most powerful leaders.
In Donald Trump, the prince has an eager audience when it comes to talking up the Iranian threat. During his visit to Riyadh last month, Trump denounced the Tehran regime and called for its international isolation. The US president remains committed to tearing up the nuclear deal with Iran signed by Barack Obama and the EU two years ago. The US is imposing new sanctions even as it provocatively furnishes the Saudis with up to $110bn (£86bn) worth of state of the art weaponry.
Trump’s designation of Iran as the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism, and his intimations about the possible use of force, are wholly in line with Prince Mohammed’s thinking. This has led to speculation, for example, that the Saudis and Israelis may concoct a Palestinian “peace” agreement, under US auspices, on the way to forming a united front against Iran. Jared Kushner, Trump’s envoy, was in Israel last week exploring some kind of deal.
It is at this point that Prince Mohammed’s overweening ambitions cease to be of merely local interest and become truly dangerous, internationally speaking. Russia has hitherto sought good relations with the Saudis. But its overriding Middle East priority is Assad’s survival in Syria, and to that end, Iran is key. A strengthening, increasingly bellicose US-Saudi-Israel alliance would certainly produce a reaction in Moscow – and that reaction could include getting ever closer to Iran in the Near East, in the Gulf, and in central Asia and Afghanistan. Nor will Iran stand idly by as hostility increases.
President Trump and Prince Mohammed – the old fraudster and the young hothead. It is an unsettling combination whose possible consequences are greatly to be feared.
THE AL-SAUD FILE
Born Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud on 31 August 1985 , in Jeddah. He is the son of King Salman from his third spouse, Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan bin Hathleen. He studied law at King Saud University.
Best of times Since he entered politics in 2009 as a special adviser to his father, his rise has been meteoric. In January 2015 his father became king, and he was appointed the world’s youngest minister of defence, before last week becoming Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince.
Worst of times On 24 September 2015 over 2,000 Hajj pilgrims were suffocated, or crushed during the annual Hajji pilgrimage in Mina, Mecca. Some claimed this was due to attempts by the personal convoy of Mohammed bin Salman to force itself through the crowd, as well as several road closures in the area.
What others say “Today, foreign policy, defence matters, and issues of social change are all under Prince Mohammed’s control.” – Mohammed Alyahya, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council
What he says “A war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the beginning of a major catastrophe in the region, and it will reflect very strongly on the rest of the world. For sure we will not allow any such thing.”
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