In the fractious world of Middle Eastern politics, Mohammed bin Salman is seen either as a long-awaited young reformer shaking up the world’s most autocratic society, or as an impetuous and inexperienced princeling whose rapid rise to power could destabilize Saudi Arabia, the preëminent sheikhdom on the energy-rich Arabian Peninsula. Either way, the thirty-one-year-old is now set to be the kingdom’s next ruler—potentially for the next half century—following an abrupt shakeup in the royal family.
On Wednesday, King Salman, who is eighty-one and frail, ousted his more seasoned heir—a fifty-seven-year-old nephew who crushed Al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia during decades as the counterterrorism tsar—in favor of Prince Mohammed, the monarch’s seventh and favorite son. The sprawling royal family has traditionally shared power among the first generation of sons of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founding father of modern Saudi Arabia. When he died in 1953, he had fathered forty-three sons and even more daughters. Since then, an artful balancing act has distributed politics, privilege, and financial perks among the royal family’s many branches. The arrangement preëmpted serious dissent.
Now, in a royal decree, the king’s move has bypassed his own brothers, hundreds of royals in the second generation who thought that they had a shot at the kingship, and even his own older sons. Prince Mohammed is the youngest heir apparent in Saudi history—by decades. In a country long ruled by men who grew up without air-conditioning or direct-dial phones, the new crown prince talks of growing up playing video games, carries an iPhone, and talks openly about idolizing Steve Jobs.
Not everyone is happy. The Saudi game of thrones comes at a tumultuous time. The desert kingdom is trapped in a costly and open-ended war in Yemen, which has been called its Vietnam. Plummeting oil prices have forced it to dig deep—more than a hundred billion dollars deep—into foreign-exchange reserves to cover its deficit. It is in the midst of a tense societal transformation, as more than sixty per cent of its population is under thirty-five and the majority of university students are now female. Yet, for all the stereotypes of Saudi gold-plated wealth and ruby-encrusted self-indulgence, more than a third of the country’s youth are unemployed. And women still can’t drive.
The big question is: Why did the king make the appointment now? Was President Trump’s trip last month, orchestrated largely by Prince Mohammed, the turning point? Was the decision influenced by the age of the king, who reportedly suffers from dementia? Was it driven by the need for resolution regarding the kingdom’s future at a time when the Middle East faces existential challenges to its countries, borders, and millions of residents? Was it the sway of Prince Mohammed’s influential mother—the king’s third wife? Possibly, it was all of the above.
“The king may have felt that, with all the issues on the table now, clarity in terms of leadership and succession were paramount,” Ali Shihabi, the executive director of the Arabia Foundation, in Washington, told me. “After being led by old men for the last fifty years, Saudi Arabia needs to be led by a younger man open to new ideas and willing to take risks.”
The new crown prince was a total unknown before his father assumed the throne, in January, 2015. Three of his older brothers—by the king’s first wife—were better known and considered more accomplished. One was the first Arab astronaut; he flew on the space shuttle, in 1985. Another son became the country’s deputy oil minister. A third is a political scientist educated at Oxford. In contrast, M.B.S.—a monogram that has become his moniker—was educated in the kingdom and was a mere adviser to his father. He was a virtual asterisk in the House of Saud.
The transformation happened overnight. Upon King Salman’s ascension, he appointed Prince Mohammed, still in his twenties, to be the country’s top decision-maker on defense, oil, and economic development, with total control over the royal court and the king’s agenda. He became the youngest defense minister in Saudi history—and the “youngest holder of this position in the world,” according to the House of Saud Web site, despite no military training. He was also chosen to head a newly formed Council for Economic and Development Affairs and to chair a new Supreme Council for Saudi Aramco, the body that oversees the world’s largest oil-producing company. The last title alone provides influence well beyond Saudi borders. Aramco pumps some ten million barrels of oil a day—or about one in nine barrels consumed daily worldwide, according to the Financial Times.
M.B.S. also became a diplomatic emissary, meeting with world leaders, from Barack Obama to Vladimir Putin. After their meeting in 2015, President Obama told the Saudi-owned network Al Arabiya that the prince was “wise beyond his years.” After their talks in Moscow last month, Putin told Prince Mohammed, “We appreciate your ideas.”
The new crown prince has certainly proved to be daring. He crafted Vision 2030, a plan to reform and diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-centric economy. It includes a plan to eventually sell shares in Aramco, which is state-owned, to generate a two-trillion-dollar megafund for non-oil-sector development and investment. He toldThe Economist that he wants a “Thatcher revolution” of privatization, including in health care, education, and many state-owned industries.
“The Saudi Arabia that I hope for,” he said, “is not dependent on oil; a Saudi Arabia with a growing economy; a Saudi Arabia with transparent laws; a Saudi Arabia with a very strong position in the world; a Saudi Arabia that can fulfill the dream of any Saudi, or his ambition, through creating enticing incentives, the right environment; a Saudi Arabia with sustainability; a Saudi Arabia that guarantees the participation of everyone in decision-making.”
On foreign policy, he has charted an aggressive course in the already volatile Middle East. The prince was the dominant voice in persuading the king to go to war in Yemen, in 2015. He has also taken the toughest stance against neighboring Iran. Last month, he charged that Tehran sought to take over the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina, the birthplaces of Islam. “We are a primary target for the Iranian regime,” he said. “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran.” And he is widely considered to be the impetus for the new six-nation confrontation with Qatar, a small country on a peninsula that juts off the Saudi coast.
The prince may have his own constituency to back him up. “With a decidedly young population, it seems to me that having a young king instead of an old king will be popular,” Walter Cutler, a former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told me. M.B.S. has fostered new forms of entertainment for the young, including concerts and talk of a Disneyland-like park. “The under-thirty crowd are bored to death and looking for something to do,” Bruce Riedel, a former National Security Council, C.I.A., and Pentagon official, said. “They have less money in their pockets, so they can’t go to London or Dubai any longer.”
For all the crown Prince’s big ideas, he has so far produced few big deliverables. “He’s a proven failure when it comes to good judgment. The war in Yemen is a disaster for the kingdom. It’s a stalemate with no end in sight,” Riedel told me “His judgement has proven reckless in Qatar. And Vision 2030, so far, is a work in progress. Selling shares in Aramco may happen in 2018. Saudi-izing the workforce hasn’t produced any real results either.
“The royal family and the clerics will at some point wonder if this kid is up to the job,” he said. “And there is no auto-correct button in the kingdom.”
As he defines a different future, Prince Mohammed is also trapped in a culture of the past. On women’s rights, he acknowledged, “Some things, even if we want to change, we cannot do.” Women make up only eighteen per cent of the Saudi work force—one of the lowest rates worldwide—because, he told The Economist, a woman “needs more time to accustom herself to the idea of work. A large percentage of Saudi women are used to the fact of staying at home.” He later told Bloomberg, “I want to remind the world that American women had to wait long to get their right to vote.”
Within hours, the Saudi establishment lined up to embrace the leadership change. The ousted crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, who was also stripped of his cabinet position as the interior minister, pledged loyalty by kissing the hand of the new crown prince, who is half his age. The Allegiance Council also voted their approval, although three of the thirty-four were holdouts. All were senior members of the royal family. None were identified.
The new crown prince also has Trump on his side. The President called Prince Mohammed within hours of his appointment. They committed, the White House said, to “close cooperation to advance our shared goals of security, stability, and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond.”