The elevation of Mohammed bin Salman to crown prince of Saudi Arabia is a calculated risk with potentially enormous consequences for the kingdom. If he succeeds with his vision to transform the Saudi economy by 2030 and reduce the country’s reliance on oil revenue, the crown prince — widely known as MBS — could enjoy a reign that lasts for decades, given that he only turns 32 in August and could take Saudi Arabia well into midcentury.
Were this to happen, the future King Mohammed would go down as the ruler who renewed his kingdom and regarded as the 21st-century equivalent of his grandfather, Abdulaziz, whom he so closely resembles physically. However, if the vested interests that have built up over decades prove immune to serious overhauls or MBS takes what proves to be one risk too many, history may remember him instead as an impulsive leader who talked a good game but could not ultimately back up his words with implementable actions.
The oldest son of King Salman’s third wife, MBS rose rapidly to prominence after his father became crown prince of Saudi Arabia in June 2012. Unlike his much older half-brothers, MBS did not travel abroad for his education, and instead remained at his father’s side and studied law at King Saud University in Riyadh, where his father was governor until 2011.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that a strong bond developed between father and son, which may explain why it was MBS, rather than any of his older and professionally accomplished half-brothers, who eventually became Salman’s gatekeeper — first as special adviser and then, in 2013, as head of the crown prince’s royal court. In April 2014, MBS was promoted to a cabinet-level position as minister of state, and in January 2015 he succeeded his father as minister of defense when Salman became king.
With the succession to King Abdulaziz having passed among his many sons since his death in 1953, a key question for many Saudi-watchers, particularly those outside the kingdom, was how the royal family would manage the generational transition that had to happen sooner or later. On his first day as king, Salman settled the issue by nominating his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, deputy crown prince, signaling, for the first time, a pathway to the grandsons of Abdulaziz. Three months later, in April 2015, Salman removed the existing crown prince, his youngest surviving half brother Muqrin, replaced him with Mohammed bin Nayef, and brought MBS into the line of succession as the new deputy crown prince.
With these acts, which were unprecedented in the modern history of Saudi Arabia, Salman set two precedents; first, that his successor would come from the next generation of royals, and, second, that an incoming king could alter the line of succession that he inherited from his predecessor. Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, also cycled through two crown princes, but he outlived them both and did not remove them as Salman has done.
A potential area of concern both for MBS and for the king may have been that Mohammed bin Nayef might have been tempted to follow Salman’s practice and amend the crown prince when he took the throne. In such reasoning, the only way to ensure that MBS followed his father as king would have been to create a direct line of succession that bypassed Mohammed bin Nayef.
The upper echelons of the Al Saud are, famously, a black box closed to outsiders, and we may never know the precise reasons (or timing) for the removal of Mohammed bin Nayef and appointment of MBS. It may indeed be the case that Mohammed bin Nayef’s health was failing. He has reportedly suffered from the aftereffects of an assassination attempt in 2009 when a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula blew himself up just meters away.
It certainly is the case that over the past two years there has been a steady concentration of power and responsibility around MBS, and that a string of appointments made in April — including his 28-year-old brother Khalid as Saudi ambassador to the United States — were perceived by many as consolidating MBS’s position across the diplomatic, economic, security, defense and intelligence spectrum. With Saudi Arabia facing a volatile regional situation and beginning the array of economic overhauls associated with his Vision 2030 economic retooling, there may simply have been an appreciation of the need for decisive, long-term leadership.
How this plays out within the Al Saud and among Saudi Arabia’s regional and international partners will be important. Two anonymous letters written in September 2015 appeared to indicate a level of disquiet among at least a section of senior royal family members toward MBS — the announcement that MBS’s appointment as crown prince by 31 of the 34 members of the Allegiance Council may have been intended, in part, to portray a united front against any recurrent acts of dissent. Within the Gulf Cooperation Council — the hawkish axis that binds Saudi Arabia and the Abu Dhabi emirate through MBS and Mohammed bin Zayed — will likely strengthen still further, but may, in the process, intensify the centrifugal pressures that are weakening the GCC among the three states – Kuwait, Oman and Qatar — that do not share the hard-line approach to regional security.
Internationally, the rise of MBS to crown prince — and possibly king sooner rather than later — may be viewed with a degree of ambivalence in Western capitals, including Washington. Many in the security and counterterrorism establishment in D.C. had forged productive working relationships with Mohammed bin Nayef that smoothed relations strained by 9/11, and scrambled to get to get the measure of MBS after 2015 (similarly, the lengthy interviews MBS gave to Western media, including the Economist, Bloomberg, and, most recently, David Ignatius of The Washington Post, may have been designed to sell the prince to a Western audience).
Finally, the close ties that are said to have developed between MBS and Jared Kushner could be instrumental in packaging the “new” Saudi Arabia under a similarly ambitious political neophyte dismissive of tradition and willing to think outside of the box as a cornerstone of the administration’s approach to the Middle East, for good or ill.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.