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Saudi Arabia’s great new “reformer” is also behind Yemen catastrophe

by Tim Hume
Jun 21 2017, 12:30pm

King Salman of Saudi Arabia named his 31-year-old son as his heir apparent Wednesday, displacing a more experienced relative in an apparent bid to concentrate power in his family’s line for decades to come.

The Saudi king’s announcement that Mohammed bin Salman, his first son by his third wife, would be the new crown prince confirmed speculation that the move had been in the works for some time, said Peter Salisbury, a senior research fellow at London think tank Chatham House.

“The king has been steering things in such a way to make sure his son succeeds him, if and when the king either dies or possibly abdicates,” he said. “He’s been centralizing power around his son to make sure that his family is in a position to be a dominant force in Saudi Arabia — not just for a few years but for generations.”

Prince Mohammed was a relatively obscure figure amid the country’s vast royal family until his father became king two years ago. Since then, he’s rapidly become “Minister of Everything,” says Tobias Bock, an associate fellow at the British think tank Royal United Services Institute. The prince has gained an unprecedented concentration of power for a young royal, with his role giving him effective control of the country’s oil, economic, and defense policy.

In addition to overseeing a brutal war in Yemen and chairing the board of the state oil company, Prince Mohammed has become the “face of Saudi reform,” Bock says, by spearheading ambitious plans to overhaul the economy. His youth is also considered an asset in a country with a young population.

“He represents this vision of Saudi Arabia moving toward a different future,” Bock said of the prince’s role in developing a blueprint for sweeping economic reforms known as Saudi Vision 2030. The plan involves diversifying the Kingdom’s economy to lessen its dependence on oil, ushering in some measure of social change in the process.

“In interviews, he says things that previous Saudi royals have never said — that we have an addiction to oil and need to move away from that, about bringing women into the workforce, about changing the economy,” Bock said.

As defense minister, Prince Mohammed has been unusually vocal about Iran, his country’s archrival. His recent comments saying dialogue with Iran was impossible and that the country seeks to take control of Mecca stoked the already considerable tensions in the region.

“We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”

Tehran was quick to label the elevation of Mohammed bin Salman to crown prince a “soft coup.”

The prince’s rapid rise in recent years had elicited complaints from other branches of the royal family, but it remains to be seen how they’ll respond to Wednesday’s announcement. Saudi Arabia publicly presented the move as having the blessing of senior royals, saying the decision was endorsed by 31 members of the country’s 34-strong Allegiance Council, which determines succession. State television screened footage of now former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef pledging allegiance to his young cousin.

Bin Nayef, whose seniority to Mohammed bin Salman had been as a safeguard against the young prince’s ambitions, is now sidelined. The 57-year-old, a veteran counterterror chief who won accolades for battling al-Qaida within the kingdom, was viewed by the U.S. as a strong security partner. But he was relieved of all his official posts in the shake-up, which included surrendering the role of interior minister to Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Naif, who, at 33, becomes the youngest Saudi ever to have the job.

Bock said these appointments, along with that of Prince Khaled bin Salman, believed to be in his late 20s, to U.S. ambassador in April, marked a “drastic generational change.” Saudi kings had traditionally come to power later in life. But the eventual reign of Prince Mohammed, whose father is 81 and in questionable health, is set to be a major departure.

As Bock noted: “He could rule for decades.”