Not since the reign of the country’s founder, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, has so much power been in one man’s hands in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman isn’t king, yet. But the 33-year-old crown prince essentially runs the country for his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is 82. The prince leapfrogged a generation of more experienced uncles and cousins to the brink of the top position in one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. He vowed to deliver revolutionary change, moderating religious strictures in the land that gave birth to Islam and weening the largest crude exporter off its dependence on oil. His supporters say his boldness is just what’s needed to push one of the world’s most conservative societies into the modern age. His critics say he is dictatorial and reckless.
Questions about Prince Mohammed’s fitness for leadership reached a peak in October when Turkish authorities said journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi government critic, had been killed after entering the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. The Saudi government denied it. Under the crown prince’s leadership, authorities have cracked down on expressions of dissent. They’ve arrested dozens of clerics, academics, writers and feminists. A commission headed by the prince spearheaded the arrests in 2017 of more than 100 people, including prominent businessmen and royals, who were forced to hand over billions of dollars to the state in what authorities called an anti-corruption operation. Prince Mohammed has overseen some liberalizing reforms, including lifting a prohibition on women drivers, introducing public entertainment such as concerts and cinemas, and stripping the religious police of their arrest powers. Those are in line with the government’s plan for the future, Vision 2030, which foresees a more open society and a diversified economy. The latter goal was supposed to have been financed in part by a partial privatization of the state-owned oil producer Saudi Aramco, but the listing has been put on hold. In a state where power-sharing among the many princes has been the norm, Prince Mohammed already controls the defense ministry, the central bank, the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, Aramco and a rejuvenated sovereign wealth fund. He is aggressive on national security matters, especially regarding Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival for power in the region. He’s been a driver of the country’s bombing campaign in Yemen since 2015 on behalf of a government ousted by Iran-backed rebels. And he was behind a cutoff of ties with neighboring Qatar in 2017 in part over its friendliness to Iran.
After graduating with a law degree from King Saud University in Riyadh and working briefly in government, Prince Mohammed, who has one wife and four children, entered politics in 2009. He was an adviser to his father, then the governor of Riyadh province. Early on, the prince gained a reputation for working hard, like his father, and for being demanding, like his mother, who he says never overlooked his mistakes. After then-King Abdullah named Prince Mohammed’s father defense minister, the monarch initially barred the prince from entering the ministry because of rumors he was disruptive and power-hungry. King Salman ascended to the throne in 2015 and named his favorite son crown prince in June 2017. He stripped the title from Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, the country’s prominent anti-terrorism czar, who was fired as interior minister and, according to some reports, placed under house arrest. The events unsettled a country accustomed to cohesion within the royal family.
Prince Mohammed’s raw ambition and monopolization of power have antagonized some members of the royal family, stirring speculation that they will oppose his accession to the throne once his father dies. Skeptics worry that Prince Mohammed is too inexperienced and willful, and that no one will remain to check his power when many of the state’s seasoned leaders have been moved aside to make way for him. Critics of his policies note that the campaign in Yemen has failed to dislodge the rebels while contributing to what United Nations officials call the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Breaking ties with Qatar, they say, only drove that country into a closer relationship with Iran. The prince’s supporters see his youth as an advantage in a country in which 70 percent of the population is under age 30. It could give him multiple decades to achieve his ambitious agenda; the seven Saudi kings so far have come to power on average at 64.
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First published Nov. 1, 2017
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