The Elevation of Mohammed bin Salman Settles the Saudi Succession Question for Decades

Newly appointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman kisses the hand of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef at the royal palace in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, June 21, 2017.

On June 14, in a long-discussed move, the Royal Court of Saudi Arabia announced that King Salman bin Abdulaziz removed Prince Mohammed bin Nayef from all of his positions, including the crown princeship and minister of interior. In his stead, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also the minister of defense, has been elevated to next in line to the throne. 

Following the 1953 death of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz bin Saud, six orderly lateral successions have taken place between his sons. The current king is set to be the last of the sons of Abdulaziz to reign. The new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS in the West, is going to be the first third-generation prince to rule his grandfather’s kingdom.

For Saudi Arabia, with succession settled for decades, the change portends a potentially long era of stability at the top. It also suggests that the economic and social reforms witnessed in the past two years are likely to continue into the future. For the Middle East, this means that Saudi Arabia will continue to assert itself as an active power in regional affairs. Finally, for the United States, the elevation of Mohammed bin Salman suggests that his close ties with the White House may yield dividends in terms of cooperation between Riyadh and Washington—at least in the short term.

Introducing Mohammed bin Salman

Born in 1985, Mohammed bin Salman is reportedly the favored son of the king. Unlike most of his brothers, he was not educated in the West but rather in Saudi universities. When his father was the powerful governor of Riyadh Province, MbS worked by his side.

The rise of Mohammed bin Salman has been the most rapid in the modern history of Saudi Arabia: from relative obscurity before his father’s kingship to his own crown princeship in a little more than two years. In January 2015, MbS replaced his father as minister of defense and was appointed secretary general of the Saudi Royal Court—a position akin to White House chief of staff. Less than a week later, he was appointed president of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs. By April 2015, MbS was deputy crown prince.

It is difficult to scientifically measure MbS’ popularity in Saudi Arabia; there has been no independent polling on the matter. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that his rise has been received positively. In particular, his young age and image as an ambitious reformer appeal to the population, 70 percent of which is younger than the age of 30 and has traditionally been ruled by much older leaders. But some of his initatives, including rolling back a generous welfare state and selling shares in Saudi Aramco, have generated criticism. Saudi opposition figures have also warned against further repression and an “erratic” regional policy.

MbS’ impact on Saudi Arabia can be felt in all areas of policy. Soon after his appointments, he launched two efforts that continue to define his rise: Saudi Vision 2030 and the military intervention in Yemen.

Saudi Vision 2030, arguably the most far-reaching attempt at economic reform in the country’s history, aims to break Saudi Arabia’s “addiction to oil.” The plan’s primary focus is on reducing the kingdom’s reliance on oil as a source of income. In 2014, for instance, the petroleum sector provided some 90 percent of government revenues. Vision 2030 includes massive privatization plans and reductions in subsidies. Most notable, however, is the partial privatization of Saudi Aramco, the country’s crown jewel and possibly the most valuable company in the world.

The plan is not without controversy, though, given its potential to rewrite the social contract at Saudi Arabia’s core. The social liberalization embedded in the plan, from the introduction of movie theaters and Western amusement parks to the lifting of restrictions on women and reducing the influence of the religious establishment, risks offending the long-dominant conservative sensibilities of the kingdom.

MbS has been the driving force behind Vision 2030 and has already pushed for restrictions on the power of the religious police, introduced minor consumption taxes, and lifted some restrictions on women. Additionally, steps to dismantle the controversial male guardianship system are reportedly underway. And in what is perhaps the key component of Vision 2030—the public offering of state-owned Saudi Aramco—is slated for next year. Taking the national oil company public would be the first true marker of the viability of the crown prince’s economic leadership. MbS will own both the successes and the failures of the plan.

On the foreign policy front, fears of an Iranian client state on Saudi Arabia’s southern border prompted MbS to make his other defining move: military intervention in Yemen. It was the first regional military coalition launched without U.S. leadership or explicit participation in recent memory. The Saudi war in Yemen—now in its third year—remains deeply controversial in the West. Some 10,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed in the fighting; 3 million have been displaced; and outbreaks of cholera could reach 300,000. United Nations officials regularly warn that 17 million Yemenis are at risk of famine.

Here’s what else you need to know about MbS

As defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman has been heavily involved in reorienting Saudi foreign policy. After his appointment to the position, Riyadh adopted a more assertive role in the region. Strained relations with the Obama administration played a role in this shift, and in turn, this shift strained relations further. Saudi Arabia’s conduct of the war in Yemen, for example, resulted in the Obama administration halting the sale of precision-guided weapons to Riyadh. Although the Trump administration lifted this ban in advance of President Donald Trump’s trip to the kingdom in May, the U.S. Senate only narrowly approved a $510 million sale of ammunition in the weeks following the trip.

Indeed, MbS has been heavily involved in deepening Saudi Arabia’s bonds with the Trump administration. The crown prince moved quickly to establish ties with the incoming Trump team and is reportedly close to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. Moreover, MbS was—along with Kushner—a key force behind President Trump’s visit to Riyadh. And less than 24 hours following his appointment as crown prince, MbS received a congratulatory call from President Trump.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and American interests

The elevation of Mohammed bin Salman puts an end to speculation about Saudi succession. Should the crown prince assume the throne, he could potentially rule for decades, ensuring stability and continuity at the top.

The crown prince is clearly committed to Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States—or at least the Trump administration—and is more willing than his predecessors to take risks when it comes to pushing for economic and social changes in the kingdom. However, the former crown prince and interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef, was widely lauded for his efforts to fight Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In February 2017, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency honored him with its George Tenet medal for his “excellent intelligence performance, in the domain of counter-terrorism.” It is therefore important for U.S. interests to monitor how counterterrorism efforts in the kingdom evolve following his removal.

In terms of American interests, a number of key U.S. objectives for the region will require cooperation with the Saudis: unwinding wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, as well as defeating the Islamic State. These objectives also include supporting the Iraqi government and assisting countries such as Lebanon and Jordan that are straining under the weight of the Syrian refugee crisis; resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and, most important of all, rolling back Iran’s expansionism in the region without provoking a military confrontation.

While a functional relationship with Saudi Arabia is critical to accomplish these objectives, the Trump administration must strike a delicate balance between rebuilding confidence with Riyadh and uncritically aligning with its regional outlook. For American officials, it is now clear that navigating this divide runs through the new crown prince.