The ongoing Qatar Gulf crisis has been hectic on the U.S. side with the president and the State Department contradicting each other and the U.S. ambassador to Qatar abruptly quitting. Saudi Arabia is also shaking things up during a time of diplomatic strife as King Salman, now 81 years old, has sidestepped the normal succession rules and named his 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, as the crown prince next in line for the throne.
The new crown prince ascends at the expense of his predecessor and older cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, who served as interior minister and counterterrorism chief and had a good relationship with Saudi Arabia’s allies. King Salman’s decree stripped him of his interior minister job as well. That’s absolute monarchy for you.
According to the New York Times, the younger Prince Mohammed’s swift rise left many predicting this sort of switch would take place:
As deputy crown prince, he spearheaded the development of a wide-ranging plan, called Saudi Vision 2030, which seeks to decrease the country’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy and loosen some of the conservative, Islamic kingdom’s social restrictions.
As defense minister, he also had primary responsibility for the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen, where it is leading a coalition of Arab allies in a bombing campaign aimed at pushing Houthi rebels from the capital and at restoring the government.
However, the Saudi war in Yemen is fast becoming a human rights boondoggle and isn’t exactly going well. The new crown prince is also an anti-Iran (so, anti-Shia) hardliner. “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia,” he’s said. “Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”
The switch comes at a curious time for Saudi Arabia’s economy as oil prices keep falling, and while the young prince has a reputation as being pragmatic and detail-oriented — and there are a number of options to course-correct the kingdom’s economy (including privatizing the state-run oil company Aramco) — it isn’t known who his closest advisors are and what path they will take.
According to Bloomberg, the new prince could have a big impact on U.S.-Saudi relations, too:
“Muhammed bin Nayef was Washington’s man in Riyadh for a long time,” said Peter Salisbury, a fellow at Chatham House, an international affairs research group in London. “The security establishment will be unhappy he’s gone, more so because the new crown prince has really cut out institutions and is building a direct relationship with the White House.”
The first step in building that relationship with the White House? Prince Mohammed visited the U.S. in March and had lunch with President Trump.