Prince Mohammed bin Salman was little known outside the palace till 2015 January when his father Salman bin Abdulaziz assumed the throne of Saudi Arabia after the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.
Even within the royal family, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the first son of the king’s third wife, was overshadowed by his three elder half-brothers, all belonging to the powerful Sudairi clan. But within four months of his coronation, King Salman put the 29-year-old prince in charge of the country’s state oil monopoly, the national investment fund, economic policy and the Ministry of Defence, breaching decades of tradition within the Saudi government where key posts are distributed among powerful princes to retain a balance within the royal family.
And on June 21, 2017, the king surprised the world once again by naming Prince Mohammed bin Salman as Crown Prince , next in line to the throne. He has replaced the powerful Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, who’s known for leading the kingdom’s brutal battle against al-Qaeda network at home and enjoys close ties with Washington.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman has always been close to King Salman. Unlike his elder half brothers — one an astronaut, one an Oxford-educated political scientist and the other a highly regarded Deputy Oil Minister — who built their own independent careers, Prince Mohammed has mostly worked for his father. After graduating from the King Saud University in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in law, he immediately started working for the Bureau of Experts, which advises the cabinet on legal issues, upon his father’s suggestion. He later worked with his father when he was Riyadh’s Governor, and started cultivating strong interests in defence issues when Salman was named Defence Minister by King Abdullah in 2011. According to some reports, Abdullah was so angry with Prince Mohammad’s alleged interferences in the defence matters that asked him never to set foot inside the Ministry. When Salman became the Crown Prince in 2012, Prince Mohammed, then 26, was named his Chief of Court. Since then, he has never turned back.
Is Prince Mohammed bin Salman a reformer? He has certain concrete plans to overhaul the Saudi economy. He constantly argued that Saudi Arabia, a country that relied on the petroleum sector for 90% of its state budget, should reduce its dependence on oil. When Salman became the King, Prince Mohammed bin Salman got a free hand to go ahead and draft a new economic policy vision. Last year, he rolled out the Saudi Vision Document 2030 aimed making Saudi independent of oil and transforming the economy. It proposed to implement economic reforms, encourage more private enterprises, issue an initial public offer at the Saudi Aramco, the state oil monopoly and set up a $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, to make investments. Many think he could also introduce positive changes to the conservative Saudi society where women are still not allowed to drive. Prince Mohammed once signalled he would support more freedoms for women. “We believe women have rights in Islam that they’ve yet to obtain,” he said. But it is not sure if he is serious in pushing for such a social reform agenda which, in a country where the Wahhabi clergy holds enormous sway, will likely trigger resistance.
On foreign policy, Prince Mohammed bin Salman is widely credited with the more aggressive line King Salman has taken on various regional issues, from the Yemen war to anti-Iran push and the Qatar blockade. Being the Defence Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman is overseeing the disastrous bombing campaign of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, for over two years against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Thousands of civilians have been killed and basic infrastructure destroyed pushing Yemen into a humanitarian catastrophe, but the Saudi campaign still failed to defeat the Houthis. The decision to cut off diplomatic, commerce and travel ties with Qatar also appears to be backfiring as Doha refused to make any compromise and reached out to Iran and Turkey, other regional powers, for support.
These crises, both domestic and regional, pose serious challenges to the new Crown Prince. But an equally important and immediate challenge will be to win the support of the powerful members of the royal family. The 81-year-old King, who is reportedly ill, may be setting the stage for his son’s accession to the throne once he departs. To make that happen, the young prince will have to first consolidate power within the family, which is no stranger to power-hungry palace politics.