On June 21, 2017, King Salman of Saudi Arabia named his favourite son, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, as next in line for the throne. In addition to the promotion, the king also removed all posts from the former Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef. The reorganisation is nothing less than groundbreaking.
Typically, Saudi Arabia has always been ruled by kings who have been over 50. But in his 30s, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will be the youngest king in the history of a country infamous for its stereotypes and orthodoxy. Preceding over the social, economic and political life in the country, nothing short of progressive reforms, like Vision 2030, are expected of him by the world.
In what is being called a pleasant surprise, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud shook up the line of succession. In addition to elevating his son, the king also amended Article V of the Statute of Ruling, which stipulates that from now on only the sons and crown sons of the late King Ibn Sa’ud, the founding king of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, can be kings and crown princes. This amendment results in the movement from Saudi Arabia’s distinct monarchy, which is based on agnatic seniority (wherein the monarch’s brother would be chosen to succeed the monarch over his children), to more traditional principles of inheritance. This was a much-needed change as the Saudi Kingdom was bound to shift from the older generation of rulers to a newer generation.
However, the recent changes were not spontaneous. They were set in motion two years earlier when King Salman shuffled the Royal Court and appointed his son Mohammed Bin Salman as the Deputy Crown Prince. But, instead of outright naming his son as his successor, the king gradually introduced and elevated Bin Salman among the power brokers of the Saudi Dynasty. As such, Bin Salman was quickly showered with official titles (which he still holds), this earning him the nickname ‘Mr. Everything’. The Crown Prince, who studied at King Saud University, at present holds the following titles:
Amongst his most important tasks, he oversees Saudi Aramco, the Vision 2030 Reforms, and leads the Saudi war in Yemen. Over the last two years, Bin Salman has steadily gained approval from the prominent members of the House of Sa’ud.
Regardless of Bin Salman’s swift promotions, King Salman could not directly replace Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef since he was well connected with the royal family and the US intelligence community. In fact, Bin Nayef, trained with the Scotland Yard, has been known for his fierce crackdown on jihadist groups after the 9/11 attacks. During his camping against Al-Queda, he survived four assassination attempts, one of which left him injured. In recent years, Bin Nayef has also served as the head of the Ministry of Interior. In other words, replacing him was not straight-forward.
So, in April 2017, King Salman re-organized the Royal Court and created the National Security Centre which coordinates the country’s national security and foreign policy. The legal body included members from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Guard, the General Intelligence Directorate, and the Ministry of Interior, the latter of which was headed by Bin Nayef. Less than two months later, King Salman issued a decree that targeted the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution (which is the Saudi equivalent of an Attorney General’s Office), which fell within the jurisdiction of Bin Nayef. Subsequently, the Royal decree renamed the Bureau and placed it under the control of a prosecutor who reports directly to the monarch. Thus, by chipping power away from the Interior Minister, Bin Nayef was increasingly sidelined. These series of events allowed for a smooth public transition of power in late June 2017.
Bin Salman’s promotion was bound to happen either way. However, the Crown prince’s age also means that he is likely to reign for decades to come. So, unlike the previous kings, Bin Salman can’t neglect the Kingdom’s much needed economic and social reforms, since that would create problems for himself later on. This also means that Bin Salman’s policies should be carefully considered, as any miscalculation will be his to deal with. In this context, long-term relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States will remain at a strategic level. In fact, Bin Salman has worked hard to assure the US Intelligence community that he is a reliable partner and that he is fully dedicated to fighting Jihadist factions. Considering the American interests in the Middle East, essentially, it will be business as usual.
One area of foreign policy that is expected to change is the relationship with Iran. Bin Salman has greatly aggravated the relations between the two, so much so, that in May 2017, he promised to take the rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh inside Iran’s borders. These overtures, and the geopolitical activities in the region, imply that the Saudi-Iranian rivalry will persist, if not expand into new battle spaces. One example is the war in neighbouring Yemen. Bin Salman has attempted to oust the Iranian Houthi Rebels in Yemen. So far, his efforts have failed. On top of that, the war is plagued with many controversies, ranging from tactical failures to human rights violations and war crimes. As Saudi Airstrikes devastate Yemen’s infrastructure, the Yemeni people are on the brink of a famine. If Bin Salman does not change his course in Yemen, sectarian violence will solidify the division between Sunni and Shia Muslims. This will result in a break-up in Yemen. Such an event would increase the risk of a blowback into Saudi Arabia, leading to similar sectarian divisions there. Once again I would like to state that Bin Salman can’t just pass the baton to the next ruler. Anything that goes wrong will come back to haunt him.
Besides foreign policy, the Crown Prince is also expected to reform Saudi economy. In the initiative known as Saudi Vision 2030, Bin Salman seeks to reduce Riyadh’s reliance on hydrocarbon energy revenues. His plan involves putting 5% of state-owned Saudi Aramco up for an initial public offering. To that end, Bin Salman will use the generated funds as the financial engine for the reforms. Currently, the Crown Prince is exploring ways to maximise Saudi Aramco’s valuation and thereby improve the funding for his initiative. However, it is unlikely that 5% will be enough to fully fund the Saudi Vision 2030 initiative. As Bin Salman continues to push ahead with the economic reforms, he could be compelled to sell additional shares of Saudi Aramco. But, such a decision will come at the expense of other members of the royal family who perceive Saudi Aramco as their rightful piggy-bank; hence internal opposition, especially from the third-generation princes, is likely to increase against Bin Salman’s economic reforms.
In conjunction with his economic reforms, the Crown Prince also seeks to reform education and work ethics in Saudi Arabia; which basically requires a complete overhaul of the social fabric of Saudi Arabian society. Obviously, this is a far greater task than reforming the economy. Any swift change in civil and social rights will be met with stiff retaliation from the conservative religious establishment. As the future ruler of Saudi Arabia, Bin Salman finds himself between change and an orthodox and conformist desert nation. He is well aware of the need for economic and social change in Saudi Arabia. Even though he will be on the throne, the circumstances will not be in his favour. To avoid an internal blowback, Bin Salman will have to carefully and steadily navigate through the interests of Saudi princes and the religious establishment. If he stumbles, the impact on the region will be far greater than what we have assumed thus far from the conflicts in the Middle East.