By Gregory Brew
In a major upset to the traditional line of succession, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia announced on Wednesday that he was appointing his thirty-one year-old son Muhammad bin Salman as Crown Prince, officially marking him as successor to the thrown. The move bypassed the previous Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Naif, who is the country’s Minister for the Interior and a crucial figure in the Saudi fight against Islamic terrorism.
Bypassing Naif, along with other, older members of the Saudi family tree, shows how far the influence of the young Mohammed bin Salman has grown in the last several years, as he has managed the war in Yemen as the country’s Foreign Minister and spearheaded the Vision 2030 economic development project. He has also supported Saudi Arabia’s strategy of reducing oil production as a way of arresting the current calamitous drop in the price of oil.
Confirming him as Crown Prince and marking him for future leadership makes it clear the Saudi government is doubling-down on some of its more controversial policies, including the increasingly-brutal war in Yemen and the current antagonism toward a Qatar, a fellow Arab state which Riyadh is attempting to isolate over its alleged support for terrorist groups and its ties to Iran. The Crown Prince is at the center of these polices, and his new appointment will only increase his influence.
The shift in the line of succession also marks an important turning point for Saudi Arabia. King Salman, 81, is the oldest-surviving son of King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the country’s founder and first ruler. Every Saudi ruler has descended directly from its first king, but the transition to Mohammed bin Salman as king would act as a transition to a new generation of leadership.
Despite some fears that he is reckless, impulsive and overly ambitious, Mohammed bin Salman has illustrated a determination to drag the Kingdom into the twenty-first century. His championing of the Vision 2030 plan, which seeks to move the Saudi economy away from dependence on oil, shows his technocratic determination, which is shared by a large, growing cohort of young Saudis who have flocked to him.
Within the Saudi bureaucracy, which functions at times like an enormous extended family with hundreds of princes jockeying for power, Mohammed bin Salman has built a power base among the country’s younger, forward-looking administrative class. His youth means that Mohammed Bin Salman, once he becomes king, will likely rule Saudi Arabia for as much as half a century.
For now, however, the young Crown Prince has few concrete accomplishments to his name. He has driven the current Saudi policy of warming up to the Trump Administration, which has delivered some results: President Trump indicated his support for the Saudi move to isolate Qatar, though his State Department and the Pentagon have maintained ties to Qatar, an important US ally and host to a US military base.
The Crown Prince’s handling of the war in Yemen has been less successful, as Saudi forces have become bogged down in a potential stalemate with Yemeni militants. The war has triggered a massive famine among the Yemeni population and Saudi conduct has inspired accusations of war crimes.
Meanwhile, the long-anticipated Vision 2030 economic development plan rests upon the privatization of Saudi Aramco, the country’s enormous state-run oil company. Sale of the company, beginning with a 5% IPO next year, will provide the financial basis for a sovereign wealth fund, which the Crown Prince hopes will drive growth in other sectors of the Saudi economy. The challenge for oil states to break the “resource curse” and achieve economic development independent of oil prices is a significant one, and skeptics have argued that Mohammed bin Salman’s plan is overly ambitious and possibly doomed to fail, as Saudi Arabia has depended on oil to balance its budget and pay for its generous, expansive welfare state.
Regardless of these policy choices, the move to solidify Mohammed bin Salman’s position within the Saudi government shows that the young Crown Prince will wield significant authority in the future, even before becoming king. The impact he has on the region, and on global politics, is likely to be significant.