June 21, 2017 | Policy Brief

Saudi King Ousts His Crown Prince

June 21, 2017 | Policy Brief

Saudi King Ousts His Crown Prince

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman dismissed his heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, on Wednesday morning local time. The king instead selected his own favorite son, Mohammed bin Salman, to be the new heir apparent. Although Bin Salman had been serving as a secondary heir since April 2015, his elevation and the dismissal of the previous crown prince will have far-reaching consequences for the Arab world’s most powerful state, reinforcing Bin Salman’s intensive economic reforms, activist foreign policy, and alignment with the United Arab Emirates against Qatar.

The dismissal of Mohammed bin Nayef (referred to by Western officials as “MbN”) constitutes a remarkable fall from power. As recently as two years ago, he was considered “the Saudi royal family’s rising star” and “America’s favorite Saudi official.” When King Salman assumed power in January 2015, he put Bin Nayef second in line for the throne, marking the first time in half a century that a Saudi monarch picked someone other than a half-brother for the royal line of succession. Just three months later, the king promoted MbN to first in line.

However, observers have long speculated that the king might remove MbN to ensure that the king’s own son Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) would eventually inherit the throne. In April 2015, when the king promoted MbN to first in line as crown prince, MbS was selected as his deputy and second in line. Since that date, MbS has increasingly outshone his cousin in the media spotlight and accumulated a sweeping portfolio of roles, earning him the nickname “Mr. Everything.”

Mohammed bin Salman is still just thirty-one years old. He rose to power on his father’s coattails, initially serving as chief of his father’s court and his gatekeeper at the defense ministry. When Salman became king in 2015, he appointed Mohammed to be the world’s youngest defense minister. MbS was soon put in charge of the new Council for Economic and Development Affairs and appointed chairman of a new supreme council to oversee Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s state-owned energy giant.

MbS now takes on Bin Nayef’s roles as crown prince and first deputy prime minister while also maintaining the defense portfolio. Bin Nayef was further stripped of his role as interior minister, which was given to his 33-year-old nephew instead.

Perhaps the most notable consequence of Wednesday’s shakeup is that it reinforces Saudi economic reforms. MbS personally championed the kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 reform program, which aims to significantly boost job creation by transitioning the economy away from resource extraction and toward more labor-intensive sectors. MbN, on the other hand, was visibly “standoffish” toward the plan and could have scuttled it if he became king.

MbS is also closely identified with the so-called Salman Doctrine, which calls for the kingdom to be more proactive militarily beyond its borders. He launched Saudi Arabia’s stalemated war against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, spearheaded the creation of an Islamic military alliance against terrorism that excludes Iran and several Iranian client states, and has been seeking to jump-start an indigenous defense industrial base in the kingdom. Bin Salman also was credited by the kingdom’s foreign minister with “managing the Saudi-U.S. relationship” under the Trump administration.

Finally, Bin Salman’s advancement spells good news for the United Arab Emirates and bad news for Qatar. He is enthusiastically supported by the UAE’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and is thought to be the force behind the kingdom’s decision to sever its relations with Qatar last month over its support for Islamist extremists. MbN, on the other hand, was close to Qatar’s rulers.

There is no suggestion of any organized pushback against the king’s latest decisions, and Saudi television has repeatedly been airing footage of MbN pledging allegiance to the new crown prince. It is unclear where Mohammed bin Salman will come down on the issues of religious incitement or women’s rights, although he is not expected to support civil rights reforms that could constrain his hold on power.

For better or for ill, Mohammed bin Salman’s promotion suggests that a more activist Saudi monarchy is likely here to stay.

David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidAWeinberg.