Undoing decades of royal tradition, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman appointed his 31-year-old son Mohammed Bin Salman to be next in line for the throne on Wednesday, signaling a historic political shift in one of the Middle East’s key regional powers.
A rising star within the Saudi royal family, Mohammed Bin Salman was already one of the kingdom’s most powerful leaders. He advocates a forceful Saudi foreign policy and is also leading a massive overhaul of the Saudi economy. As the country’s defense minister, he is in charge of Saudi Arabia’s two-year-old air war in Yemen, where more than 10,000 people have died in one of the world’s most dire humanitarian crises.
The young prince is now in position to take control of Saudi Arabia in a moment of increasing friction with the country’s neighbors. Saudi Arabia recently joined the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and several other countries to launch an embargo of Qatar, igniting a long-simmering conflict among Arab states over the role of political Islam in the region. The Saudi government is also grappling with the collapse of the price of oil, and ongoing tensions with archrival Iran, the kingdom’s nemesis and competitor in a region-wide struggle for power and influence.
In a royal decree on Wednesday, King Salman ordered a change to his country’s succession law, effectively skipping a generation. King Salman removed the previous crown prince, his cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is 57. Bin Nayef, who was highly regarded by Western intelligence agencies for his counter-terrorism efforts, was also removed from his position as interior minister. His replacement as interior minister is a 33-year-old relatively unknown prince named Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef -- another sign of a generational shift.
The abrupt change was softened by a public display of unity: The new crown prince appeared before the cameras on Wednesday morning, kissing the hand and kneeling in front of Mohammed Bin Nayef, the man he replaced, after receiving a vow of allegiance from him at the Safa Palace in Mecca. There were few overt signs of dissent, as 31 of 34 senior members of the royal family on the Allegiance Council voted in favor of the change, according to state television.
“The process couldn't have gone smoother than it did,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi political analyst affiliated with the Atlantic Council in Washington. “Finding alternative succession mechanisms was only a matter of time in Saudi Arabia,” he told TIME in an email.
The new Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman startled political observers when he emerged as third in line after his father ascended to the throne in 2015. A relative unknown and complex figure, even his age was initially a matter of uncertainty. But he quickly became the public face of an ongoing transformation of Saudi Arabia’s economy -- and also of the country’s sudden, and extremely lethal military intervention in neighboring Yemen.
That war has come at great human and political cost. Saudi Arabia launched the military operation, with support from U.S. intelligence, in March 2015, intending to dislodge Houthi rebels who ousted the country’s internationally recognized government. More than two years later, the Houthis remain in control of the capital, Sanaa, and the war has taken an immense toll on civilians. Yemen is now gripped by a growing food crisis, with millions facing starvation, as well as a fast spreading outbreak of cholera that now stands at more than 70,000 cases. Amidst the chaos, Yemen's al-Qaeda affiliate has expanded its territory.
"He has a lot of challenges ahead, and he doesn't have much experience. So I think a lot of Saudi society including a number of senior members of the royal family are watching very carefully to see if he is up to the task," said Robert Jordan, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003, in a phone interview.
Mohammed Bin Salman says he sees no possibility of dialogue with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival in a regional contest for power. “We were bitten once. We will not be bitten again. We know we are a major target for the Iranian regime,” he said in a television interview in May. “We will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia but we will work so the battle is there in Iran,” he added. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia, a largely Sunni nation that includes Islam's major shrines, and Shi'ite Iran is a major dividing line in the Middle East, as both states struggle for influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula. Iranian state television labeled the Saudi king’s decrees a “soft coup” on Wednesday.
Built on one of the world's largest oil reserves, Saudi Arabia faces the immense and delicate task of remaking its economy in order to better absorb blows such as the collapse in the price of crude since late 2014. Mohammed Bin Salman last year was placed in charge of in charge of implementing Vision 2030, a plan including subsidy cuts and partial privatization of the state oil company, Saudi Aramco. The plan's foundational text also calls for "opportunities for everyone — men and women, young and old."
The austerity envisioned by the plan places the government in a precarious position, however. After budget cuts introduced in 2016 stoked public dissatisfaction, King Salman reversed some of the cuts in April, reintroducing bonuses and allowances for public employees. Plans for an initial public offering of Saudi Aramco stock have been postponed. And even as he cut budgets at home, the young prince Mohammed Bin Salman purchased a $550 million yacht from a Russian vodka tycoon, according to the New York Times. So controversy surrounds both the economic reforms and the prince in charge of them.
"Almost every Saudi ruler has been portrayed, in one way or another, as a reformer, with some also depicted as more benevolent dictators than others," says Rosie Bsheer, a modern Middle East historian at Yale. "Mohammad bin Salman is no different, and continues a long line of authoritarian rulers who govern under the guise of social and economic reform while further tightening their grip on political and economic power."
The ambitious new crown prince has cultivated his relationship with President Donald Trump. The two leaders held talks at the White House in March, and Trump made Saudi Arabia the first stop on his first overseas trip as President in May. Trump characterized the visit as a foreign policy success, announcing a package of weapons sales to the Saudis totaling nearly $110 million. Some of the deals had been agreed upon during the Obama administration.
In recent weeks Saudi Arabia has been at the leading edge of a confrontation with neighboring Qatar, a tiny, gas-rich monarchy with an outsized role in the Middle East's geopolitics. Accusing the Qatari government of supporting "terrorism" in the region, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and several other countries imposes sanctions on Qatar, including banning Qatari aircraft from their airspace in a move that has been compared to a blockade. The crisis has given expression to long-standing differences among the Gulf Arab states over the 2011 popular revolts across the region and the role of Islamist groups in politics.
Bin Salman's elevation to the role of crown prince had long been expected, although the timing was a surprise. There was no indication from the royal court that the move was connected to the rupture with Qatar, but Yale historian Bsheer noted that King Salman had "personally, though unsuccessfully, tried to rally members of the ruling family around the possibility of making his son the successor to the Saudi throne."
"Failing to secure the necessary support, bin Salman found the post-Qatar crisis moment a convenient one to stage his unpopular intervention," she told TIME.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the relationship between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Bin Salman is bin Nayef’s cousin.