Will the Saudi heir apparent assume the throne this week?
Reports circulating that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz plans to abdicate as early as this week and crown his son, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), have left many wondering how the young prince managed to ascend to power so quickly.
So who is this young heir to the Saudi throne?
At 32, MBS—nicknamed Mr. Everything—is known as a reformist and holds a long line of titles including, Crown Prince, Minister of Defense, Deputy Prime Minister, Chairman of the Council for Political and Security Affairs and Chairman of the Council for Economic Affairs and Development. He recently was named the head of an anti-corruption body that has overseen the arrest of hundreds of royals and businessmen amid a crackdown in the country that many perceive as a move to consolidate power ahead of his prospective rulership.
In this respect, MBS has been quietly orchestrating the appointments of a range of young princes to positions of power. They are all either the grandsons or great-grandsons of the kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saud.
In 2008, bin Salman married Princess Sarah bint Mashhoor bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and together they had three children. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in law from King Saud University, MBS spent several years in the private sector before becoming the personal aide of his father in 2009.
In 2015, King Salman named his nephew, Muhammad bin Nayef, as Crown Prince; however, just two years later Salman cast him aside in favor of MBS.
Reshaping Saudi Arabia
Bin Salman has made clear that he is determined to reinvent Saudi Arabia’s image by vowing to introduce a more “moderate” form of Islam and by transforming the hardline kingdom into an open society with greater freedoms for its citizens and that attracts more investment.
In April 2016, MBS introduced Vision 2030, an initiative meant to reform the kingdom, privatize the economy and to make it less reliant on oil. Riyadh is also working on a $500 billion plan to create a large business and industrial zone extending into Jordan and Egypt.
Fighting for control in Yemen and Lebanon
Saudi Arabia is currently engaged in a major confrontation with Iran and tensions continue to play out in proxy wars and corresponding diplomatic battles for political influence in the region, especially in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and, most recently, with the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Lebanon.
Among the chief changes MBS is bringing to the kingdom is a more aggressive foreign policy toward Tehran, which may even reportedly include enlisting Israel’s help in defeating Hizbullah. The Iranian-backed Shiite group, which is at the center of the current Lebanese crisis, remains enmeshed in the Syrian conflict in support of President Bashar al-Assad and also has fighters in both Yemen and Iraq.
Dr. Yoel Guzanski from Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies poured cold water on the idea of a budding Israeli-Saudi friendship. “There is a lot of exaggeration here,” he asserted to The Media Line. “Lots of Israelis see MBS’ assertiveness favorably and as a positive thing. But I think this conduct is reckless and is already hurting American and possibly Israel’s interests in the region.
“Israeli and Saudi interests do not overlap entirely regarding Iran and Lebanon,” he continued, “as both countries have very different views regarding the method to deal with these threats.”
MBS is currently leading Operation Decisive Storm, a controversial Sunni coalition against the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis, who toppled Yemen’s internationally recognized government in 2015. The devastation has left over eighty percent of the population in need of humanitarian aid and MBS has come under fire for mismanaging the conflict.
Dr. Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at Kings College London and a Middle East security analyst, slammed MBS as an “authoritarian autocrat who seems to disregard any form of consensual governance even within the family.” Krieg also criticized the Saudi crown prince’s policies. “MBS has so far failed on every front in foreign and security policy. Mostly because he lacks a strategy. He is hotheaded, paranoid and lacks any strategic patience,” he wrote in an email to The Media Line.
MBS has also been criticized for his handling of the Hariri resignation and now appears to be backpedaling from challenging Iran in order to avoid a major regional conflict.