The abrupt shake-up that made Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman heir to his father’s throne gives the 31-year-old extraordinary powers to push through his vision to wean the economy off oil and exert his influence in regional conflicts.
Prince Mohammed replaced his elder cousin as crown prince, removing any doubt of how succession plans will unfold following the reign of King Salman, now 81. Even before the promotion, the new crown prince was dictating defense and oil policy, including overseeing plans to privatize state oil giant Aramco.
The move suggests a harder foreign policy line for the key U.S. ally in a region fraught with instability. Prince Mohammed has led the war effort in Yemen against rebels, he’s extremely hostile toward Iran and helped orchestrate Qatar’s isolation in the weeks after Donald Trump bolstered ties with Riyadh during a May visit.
“Saudi has tried to assert its authority over a range of regional events, and by cementing the question of succession at this time, the region is on notice that this direction will be pursued for the long term,” said Rodger Shanahan, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. The crown prince “has been a very public proponent of a robust Saudi presence in the region.”
In the succession overhaul announced by royal decree hours after the dawn meal that starts the daily fast in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the previous Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, 57, was relieved of all positions.
State television showed Prince Mohammed kissing the hands of his sidelined cousin, portraying a smooth handover and laying to rest concern there might be a power struggle for the throne in the future. Thirty-one of the 34 members in the Allegiance Council, which decides on matters of succession, voted in favor of the appointment
Privately, some Saudis expressed concerns about the speed and totality of the changes, saying it was excessive to remove Muhammad bin Nayef, the kingdom’s top counter-terrorism official, from his role as interior minister. Credited with restoring stability following an al Qaeda bombing campaign in the early 2000s, the prince also kept the kingdom relatively safe against Islamic State militants. He survived an assassination attempt by an al Qaeda linked suicide bomber in 2009.
“Muhammed bin Nayef was Washington’s man in Riyadh for a long time,” said Peter Salisbury, a fellow at Chatham House, an international affairs research group in London. “The security establishment will be unhappy he’s gone, more so because the new crown prince has really cut out institutions and is building a direct relationship with the White House.”
Investors, though, cheered the development for the political stability it affirms in the Middle East’s biggest economy. Stocks traded in Riyadh rallied 5.5 percent in the largest advance worldwide, also as MSCI Inc. included the kingdom in its watch-list for a potential upgrade to its emerging markets index.
The succession plan “removes impediments that he had, in that he had someone more senior to him who was perhaps a bit more conservative. Now he’ll have a freer hand,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, London-based founder of Cornerstone Global Associates.
Prince Mohammed’s rise to power has accelerated since his father took the throne in early 2015 following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Popularly known as MBS, he was catapulted into the global spotlight after unveiling an unprecedented strategy more than a year ago to end Saudi Arabia’s “addiction” to oil by 2030.
OPEC’s biggest producer is grappling with a 60 percent drop in crude prices in the past three years that’s forced budget cuts and compelled the government to tap bond markets as its fiscal shortfall ballooned about 15 percent of economic output.
On the foreign-policy front, Prince Mohammad has met with Trump twice this year: in Washington in March and in Riyadh last month during the U.S. president’s first overseas tour.
The two are eager to isolate Iran, which Riyadh accuses of aggressively trying to spread its influence in the region by supporting Shiite movements and sponsoring terror. Trump has escalated tensions with the Islamic Republic, backtracking on the Obama administration’s tentative rapprochement with the nation.
Prince Mohammed also led a multi-nation effort to quarantine neighboring Qatar over its ties with Iran and support for Islamist groups that Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have opposed for years.
Given who’s calling the shots in Riyadh and Washington, “it is not really a question of if but rather of when a new escalation with Iran starts,” said Olivier Jakob, managing director of consultant Petromatrix GmbH. “Under his watch, Saudi Arabia has developed aggressive foreign policies and he has not been shy about making strong statements against Iran.”
In the decrees announced Wednesday, King Salman also retroactively reinstated all allowances and bonuses that were canceled or suspended to civil servants and military personnel.
The royal orders didn’t name a new Deputy Crown Prince, leaving the post of second in line to the throne vacant. They also included a change to the kingdom’s basic law, stipulating that going forward, the King and the Crown Prince cannot be from the same branch of the royal family. That means that any third in line to the throne would need to be from a different family branch than King Salman and his son.