Shortly after dawn on Wednesday, King Salman announced that his 31-year-old son, widely known as MBS, was now heir to the throne. His older cousin, former crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef, had been pushed aside to make way.
The move, if not the timing, was expected. Yet Bin Nayef also lost his post as interior minister, a powerful role in which he oversaw the nation’s domestic security forces and counter-terrorism efforts. Those areas will now be in the hands of a close MBS ally. The prince already has substantial control over defence, economic and foreign policy.
Power on that scale comes with a catch. The challenges MBS has set for himself are vast. Now that rivals have been sidelined, the blame for any failures or unpopular measures will fall entirely on him, according to Ayham Kamel, director for the Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group.
Until this week, “responsibility for decisions had been shared among different members of the ruling family," said Kamel. “As Mohammed bin Salman rises, it becomes more difficult, if possible at all, to assign responsibilities to other parties."
MBS accumulated so many portfolios after his father became king in January 2015 that Western diplomats in the kingdom took to calling him “Mr Everything." So Wednesday’s palace manoeuvring is unlikely to produce any sudden change to Saudi domestic or foreign policies.
The initiatives the new crown prince has taken over those two years have, however, been unusually ambitious on almost every front.
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His Vision 2030 plan to wean Saudi Arabia off its near-total dependence on oil was well received by economists, at least in terms of its goals; some questioned the government’s ability to implement it. Investors celebrated Wednesday’s political moves as a sign that MBS will now be free to push ahead with the reforms, contributing to a 5.5% rally on the stock exchange in Riyadh, the biggest since 2015.
Still, driving those plans through to a conclusion that meets the aspirations of the kingdom’s young and fast-growing population will be a Herculean task. Many citizens will have to accept painful changes, such as reduced subsidies and fewer public-sector jobs, if the plan is to succeed. It also requires selling up to 5% of Saudi Aramco, a national treasure—which means opening up the oil giant’s carefully guarded books to public scrutiny.
With oil prices dipping below $45 this week, the government’s ability to please everybody without burning through its ample but finite currency reserves will be limited. In a sign of how sensitive Vision 2030’s austerity measures can be, King Salman on Wednesday reversed cuts to state salaries and bonuses, even as he announced his son’s elevation.
The challenges for Saudi foreign policy are equally daunting, and could drain the political capital MBS will need at home. “His ability to deliver on both fronts is still highly uncertain, as the country’s authorities are attempting to implement several generations’ worth of reforms in less than 15 years," said Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal analyst for the Middle East and North Africa at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, in a note.
In 2015, MBS launched Saudi Arabia’s expensively equipped military into a war in Yemen. The conflict has so far proved messy and inconclusive, and its civilian death toll has drawn criticism. He also raised the stakes in Saudi Arabia’s fierce regional rivalry with Iran, describing dialogue as “impossible" and calling for the fight to be taken onto Iranian soil.
Most recently, the prince led a group of countries into a diplomatic standoff with fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar. That, too, looks unlikely to deliver quick results and risks blowback, as Turkey and Iran rallied to help Qatar ride out the closure of its only land border.
None of these steps represent a fundamental change of policy for Saudi Arabia, according to James Dorsey, senior fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. But, he said, they’re all far more aggressive than the kingdom’s elderly and generally cautious leaders were willing to risk in the past.
The tougher approach to intractable problems in the Middle East appears to mesh with that of US President Donald Trump, who met MBS in Washington in March, and again in Saudi Arabia in May. On Wednesday, Trump called to congratulate the younger leader. According to the president’s office, the two men discussed the “priority of cutting off all support for terrorists and extremists, as well as how to resolve the ongoing dispute with Qatar." The prince has cultivated ties elsewhere in the White House, twice dining with his near-contemporaries Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
Support from other parts of Washington, where the deposed Bin Nayef was well regarded for his counter-terrorism efforts, is less certain. On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert issued an unusually blunt criticism of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for failing to produce detailed evidence in support of the accusations they levelled at Qatar.
MBS embarked on his campaigns against Yemen and Qatar “without an exit strategy," said Dorsey. “At this point, those are backfiring." Bloomberg