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The rise of Saudi Arabia’s young prince casts a shadow over the Middle East

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In the early hours of Wednesday, Saudi Arabia's King Salman elevated his 31-year-old son to be the kingdom's crown prince, replacing the king's 57-year-old nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef. The formal ascension of Mohammed bin Salman establishes the young royal as the most important political figure in the country, given the widespread suggestions that his father is ailing and infirm.

Mohammed bin Salman's admirers style him a necessary and energetic promoter of change in a kingdom that needs it. His detractors, though, see him as reckless and impulsive ruler, and they fear his rise will lead only to escalating tensions in the Middle East.

The announcement “marks the first time since Saudi Arabia's first ruler, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, that a Saudi monarch has designated his son rather than a brother as his heir apparent,” my colleagues wrote. “And it's only the second time since the kingdom was founded in 1932 that a grandson of Ibn Saud has been named crown prince, and its potential future king.”

But it shouldn't come as a surprise. Experts and journalists expected King Salman to eventually shove aside Mohammed bin Nayef, a political heavyweight with deep ties to the country's security apparatus, in favor of his son — it was just a question of when. In April, the king reshuffled key government posts and issued decrees seen as part of a bid to strengthen the hand of then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman while weakening that of his rival. On Wednesday, more posts were granted to a younger generation of princelings who are thought to be loyal to the new crown prince.

“We've seen the shift of power coming for some time, and the steady centralization of power under King Salman and the purview of his son,” Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington, said to my colleagues.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman elevated his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to become crown prince and ousted his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, from the royal succession line. Here's what you need to know. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: HO/The Washington Post)

Despite its various palace rivalries and family grievances, Riyadh is making the transition look smooth and seamless. Footage showed the king's son kissing his cousin's hand in a choreographed ceremony. The new crown prince received oaths of loyalty from his family and members of the public in Mecca on Wednesday night.

World leaders congratulated Mohammed bin Salman, including President Trump, who had already met the prince at the White House. The pair spoke during a Wednesday phone call and “discussed the priority of cutting off all support for terrorists.”

Trump has been a Saudi cheerleader since entering office, which is welcome news in Riyadh after the latter years of the Obama administration. Relations reached a low ebb then as Washington pursued diplomacy with Iran and seemed to cool on the long-standing Saudi alliance.

“MbS's appointment as crown prince should confirm the improved working relationship with Washington after the strains experienced during the Obama administration, chiefly over Iran and the nuclear deal,” wrote Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But, he warns, “future ties will not necessarily be harmonious.”

Since Mohammed bin Salman assumed greater powers under his father, the Saudis have taken a more aggressive role in the region. The prince is seen as a hard-liner on Iran, the architect of a deadly and controversial Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and one of the main proponents of the Saudi- and Emirati-led effort to isolate Qatar, which has spiraled into a larger regional conflagration. The time may soon come when American and Saudi interests diverge.

Recent moves by Riyadh have “ruptured the traditional Saudi alliance structure,” wrote Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, suggesting that the Saudis' aspirational role at the vanguard of the Sunni Muslim states is under threat. “Turkey has come to Qatar's support and Iran is posturing as Qatar's ally, while Pakistan and Oman are again neutral.”

“When father and son came to power after the death of King Abdullah, there was a hope that they could unite Sunnis and provide leadership when it was sorely needed,” wrote David Hearst of the Middle East Eye. “Instead, they may have fragmented and polarized it beyond repair.”

The Post's David Ignatius explains why Saudi Arabia is at a historic tipping point --- and why that matters for America. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post, Photo: HO/The Washington Post)

At home, Mohammed bin Salman has championed the need for change to shake up the country's oil-dependent economy — as well as a broader liberalization of what remains one of the world's most rigidly conservative societies.

“I'm young. Seventy percent of our citizens are young,” Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview with The Washington Post's David Ignatius this year, during which he seemed to lament the excesses of the regime's religious police and the advent of extreme religious conservatism in recent decades.

“We don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool that we were in the past 30 years,” he said. “We want to end this epoch now. We want, as the Saudi people, to enjoy the coming days and concentrate on developing our society and developing ourselves as individuals and families, while retaining our religion and customs.” But critics say the prince's talk has yet to be met by his proverbial walk.

Riedel of Brookings offers a gloomy final analysis: “The king has complete authority and control. His choice of his favorite son is likely to provoke quiet muttering and complaining in the family and the clerical establishment, but not a challenge. The longer-term costs of upsetting the legitimacy of the line of succession in the midst of low oil prices and regional tensions are much more worrisome. The young prince is poised to inherit a kingdom under stress at home and abroad.”

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