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How Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Is Upending the Old Order

5 minute read

Call him the fortunate son. In the space of a year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has become the most powerful Saudi ruler in decades. His rise marks the unraveling of royal traditions and a new level of uncertainty in a region already threatened by crises. Since its founding in 1932, the kingdom had been led by a monarchy that was conservative in outlook and cautious in politics, and refrained from military adventures abroad.

Those days are gone. When King Salman took the throne in 2015, he appointed his untested son Mohammed to the positions of Defense Minister and deputy crown prince. Then, this past June, the King disrupted the line of succession to place him next in line for the throne. From then on, the son appeared to be in charge of everything, no matter his stated title. And all before he turned 33.

The economy? It was Mohammed bin Salman who announced a plan to raise billions of dollars by selling shares of the national oil colossus Aramco as part of a wider effort to diversify the economy.

Foreign affairs? Shortly after the prince took charge of defense, Saudi Arabia launched its largest-ever military intervention, in neighboring Yemen. In June, the kingdom imposed a blockade on its Persian Gulf rival, Qatar.

Society? In September, the crown prince reversed a rule barring women from driving, ending an embarrassing symbol of patriarchy. Public entertainment like concerts are now encouraged. In December, the government lifted a decades-old ban on movie theaters.

In a country where 45% of the population is age 25 or younger, the crown prince prefers to appeal directly to the Saudi public, casting himself as a reformer even as he centralizes power and quashes political dissent. An illustration now circulating among Saudis on social media shows Mohammed bin Salman standing over a desk, conversing with the late founder of the kingdom, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the grandfather he never met. To supporters of the crown prince, the image suggests the blessing: an almost messianic figure presiding over a new founding moment.

Judging by his actions so far, Mohammed bin Salman envisions a Saudi Arabia that is economically viable, socially less suffocating, but also intolerant of political challenges. “It is a crackdown. It is reform. It is a game changer. It is all of them together,” says Jamal Khashoggi, a leading Saudi columnist living in self-imposed exile in the U.S.

The crown prince’s baldest power play came over the November weekend that he detained hundreds of elite Saudis, launching a crackdown on alleged corruption. He later told the New York Times that roughly 10% of government spending had been skimmed each year. But seasoned observers understood the detentions to be a power grab. “He has rolled up alternatives to his authority,” says Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The crown prince’s personal excesses also undermine his claim that he is cleaning up corruption. In December, Mohammed bin Salman was revealed by the Wall Street Journal to be the buyer behind a record $450.3 million bid for a 500-year-old Leonardo da Vinci portrait. A Saudi official denied the report.

The crown prince’s attempts to consolidate power at home have extended to picking fights with neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia’s archrival, Iran. For almost 40 years, the two countries have engaged in a regionwide contest for power, fighting mostly through proxies. Recently, the Saudis have not been doing well. Iranian-allied President Bashar Assad has all but won in Syria, where Saudi Arabia supported rebels. Lebanon, which is dominated by Iran-backed Hizballah, resisted when the Saudis tried to force the resignation of its Prime Minister in November. The Iran-backed Houthi movement is lodged in Yemen, where more than 10,000 civilians and fighters have died since Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of airstrikes in 2015 and followed up with a blockade that has stifled the flow of aid to the country.

Meanwhile, the Saudi sanctions on Qatar have managed to generate sympathy for the wealthy emirate, which had offended the Saudis by dealing diplomatically with Iran and Islamist groups. In August, the U.S. sent retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, a onetime commander of U.S. Central Command, to Riyadh to offer to mediate a resolution. He got nowhere. “He seemed very confident, very determined,” Zinni told TIME of the crown prince. “He felt Qatar maybe had not suffered enough.”

Next year could be pivotal for Mohammed bin Salman, as he is expected to set a date for the plan to sell 5% of Aramco. Much rides on its success, after the crackdown on elites spooked potential foreign capital. Investors may also be concerned by the continuing restrictions on freedom of speech. In September, authorities arrested high profile Sunni clerics, including some who had called for democratic reforms. Still, he will get a chance to prove his commitment to reforms as women take to the roads in June–a move that has encouraged some of his former critics. “He is genuine about really changing the country,” says Manal al-Sharif, a leading activist in the movement for women’s right to drive.

But 2018 is likely to be just the start. After he takes the reins from his elderly father, Mohammed bin Salman could rule the kingdom for a generation. Top officials in the royal court say no plan is in the works for the ailing King to abdicate, a step unprecedented in Saudi history. Besides, he may prefer to rule alongside his father for some time, with the King providing a degree of political cover as he continues to transform the kingdom completely. The fortunate son has only just begun.

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