Not since the reign of the country’s founder, Abdulaziz Al Saud, has so much power been concentrated in one man’s hands in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman isn’t king, yet. But the 37-year-old royal essentially runs the country for his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is 86. The prince, who replaced his father as prime minister in late September, leapfrogged a generation of older uncles and cousins to become heir to the throne in one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. He’s overseen changes that have shaken the kingdom to its core, loosening the religious restrictions that shaped the conservative Islamic society for decades. He’s also attempted to reduce the crude exporter’s dependence on oil and redefine its place in the world -- pushing for development in new sectors like tourism -- while increasing political repression. His supporters say his bold ambition and iron fist is what’s needed to salvage an unsustainable economy. His critics say he’s dictatorial, power-hungry and reckless.
When Joe Biden took office as US president in 2021, he avoided dealing with Prince Mohammed. In his election campaign, Biden had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a global “pariah” over the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul. A US intelligence assessment concluded Prince Mohammed had likely approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi, a citizen of Saudi Arabia who was critical of its government. MBS has denied any involvement while accepting symbolic responsibility as the kingdom’s de facto ruler. Biden never went so far as to shun the Saudis entirely, but his administration insisted that the president would only engage with his “counterpart,” King Salman. By mid-2022, however, rising oil prices had put Biden under pressure to bring down inflation -- and thus to repair ties with Saudi Arabia, a swing producer that can ramp oil exports up or down. In mid-July, Biden met with MBS, the two men bumping fists for the camera and marking the end of the cold spell.
Born in 1985, MBS sees himself as part of the first generation to grow up in the digital age. One of thousands of princes in the Saudi royal family, he graduated with a law degree from King Saud University and began a tumultuous career in government, clashing with some officials while maintaining close ties to his father -- the longtime governor of Riyadh. When King Salman ascended the throne in 2015, he named MBS defense minister, and the prince’s star rose swiftly. By 2017, he had pushed aside his older cousin to become heir to the throne and de facto ruler, overseeing all of the kingdom’s key portfolios from oil to foreign policy. MBS has loosened many social restrictions, ending a prohibition on female drivers, curbing the power of the religious police, and allowing gender mixing and public concerts. Those changes are in line with the prince’s plan for the future, Vision 2030, which foresees a more open society and a diversified economy. However, under the prince’s leadership, Saudi authorities have also cracked down on domestic dissent, imprisoning businessmen, religious clerics, activists, writers and scholars across the political spectrum. In 2020, authorities detained the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, along with the king’s own brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, and accused them of undermining the state. MBS has adopted a more assertive foreign policy than other Saudi leaders, entering and then resolving a rift with neighboring Qatar. He also began a bombing campaign in 2015 in Yemen, where a civil war has since devolved into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Skeptics worry the prince is too inexperienced and willful -- and that his autocratic style will ensure there’s no one left to check his authority or question his plans. His monopolization of power and repressive tendencies have already antagonized some potential allies, including some members of the royal family as well as Saudi intellectuals and activists who called for many of the same changes he’s instituted. His rapid overhaul of life in the kingdom has unsettled some ordinary Saudis who are troubled by the social changes or struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living. Yet many other Saudis are avid supporters of the prince and his plans, saying he’s revitalized their country, unleashed its potential for growth and change and given them basic social freedoms they had long been denied. His advocates see his youthful energy as an advantage in a country where more than half the citizenry is under 30. Either way, the prince is likely here to stay; barring an unforeseen event, he will ascend the throne after his father’s death. His young age could give him many decades to pursue his agenda and cement his final legacy.
The Reference Shelf
• QuickTakes on the US-Saudi reset, Saudi Aramco, the murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the Yemen war, and the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.
• A Congressional Research Service report on US-Saudi relations.
• A transcript of a wide-ranging Bloomberg interview with the prince.
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