ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Before the sun rose Wednesday morning in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s order of succession had been transformed in ways likely to shape its leadership for decades to come.
In a series of royal decrees, King Salman ousted his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and named his favorite son Mohammed bin Salman as next in line for the throne. At just 30-something in age, Mohammed bin Salman could well be king for a half-century.
The shake-up was widely anticipated, though its timing was not. Mohammed bin Salman began consolidating his control over government portfolios from the moment he rose from obscurity to become deputy crown prince in 2015. Back then, there was scarcely a diplomat in Riyadh who could remember shaking his hand. Today, he controls almost all of Saudi Arabia’s levers of power, domestic and foreign, either directly or through a growing network of young, like-minded appointees.
“There was no surprise for such a decision,” said Abdullah al-Shammari, a former Saudi diplomat. “It was not secret that [Mohammed bin Salman] was the most powerful figure in Saudi [for the last] year.”
Mohammed bin Salman’s rise has been billed by advisors and supporters as a much-needed shift from the older generation to a new cohort of eager technocrats. “Following these decrees, Saudi Arabia is now even better poised to represent its youth and cater to their ever-growing needs,” said Salman al-Ansari, the founder and president of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee.
In laying the groundwork for his rise these last two years, Mohammed bin Salman has also raised expectations for what he can accomplish — largely without having delivered big wins so far.
At home, he has promised to create jobs for the country’s growing (and increasingly unemployed) youth population. Through the partial privatization of the state oil company Saudi Aramco, he vows to move the economy away from oil. This can be done while maintaining cherished benefits like free education and health care, he has argued. Coinciding with the decrees that announced Mohammed bin Salman’s promotion, the state promised to retroactively pay benefits it slashed last September in a brief experiment with austerity.
Abroad, Mohammed bin Salman has proved no less ambitious. One of his first appointments was as defense minister, a post that he used to emerge as the public face of a Saudi-led coalition that is waging a war in Yemen to oust Iranian-allied Houthi rebels. Saudi airstrikes have devastated Yemen’s already weak infrastructure and left the country on the brink of famine, even as the front line of battle has largely frozen.
Mohammed bin Salman has also spearheaded a drive to win over the new White House. The effort appears so far to be a ringing success: Donald Trump visited Riyadh on his first overseas trip as president and has since visibly tilted in Saudi Arabia’s direction in policy toward the rest of the region, most notably in his animosity toward Iran.
Mohammed bin Salman no doubt hopes for Trump’s support in another regional conflict as well. Saudi Arabia is currently embroiled in the worst internal political crisis in the history of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council, as it joined with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and a growing list of other countries in halting or downgrading diplomatic relations with Qatar. Riyadh and its allies have accused Doha of supporting terrorism and not playing by regional rules. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have blocked Qatari access to their airspace and land routes, cut off Qatari websites and TV channels, and expelled Qatari citizens.
In one sense, Wednesday’s announcement brings some clarity to that crisis. Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut ties with Qatar sends a clear statement about what Doha can expect from Riyadh in the coming decades. Like a new CEO walking for the first time into a hostile boardroom, Mohammed bin Salman has set the tone: Saudi Arabia is laying out the rules of the game and won’t tolerate their being broken.
“It has long been assumed that [Mohammed bin Salman] was prominent in the decision to join or start the blockade of Qatar. Now we know,” said David Roberts, an assistant professor at King’s College London and the author of Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State.
At home, too, recent personnel shifts and ousters make more sense in the context of Wednesday’s announcement.
In April, Mohammed bin Salman led a reorganization of the Royal Court, the Saudi equivalent of a presidential cabinet, to create a National Security Center under his purview. The body, meant to act as a clearinghouse for all security- and defense-related matters, left many wondering what power was left for the then-crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, who was interior minister (a post he was also relieved of Wednesday).
Mohammed bin Nayef’s role was further diminished last weekend in royal decrees that moved the power of public prosecution, something like an attorney general’s office, from its historical seat in the crown prince’s office to a nominally independent authority reporting to the king.
In retrospect, it’s clear that this slow chipping away of Mohammed bin Nayef’s power was one of the major clues that a shake-up was coming. The shift did not come automatically: Mohammed bin Nayef was a well-respected leader, and his constituency within the royal family was well established — one reason that analysts initially brushed away the suggestion he might ever be removed from the line of succession. To win family backing, the king spent two years gradually introducing and elevating his son to office rather than simply naming him successor from the get-go.
Western allies had also taken heart when Mohammed bin Nayef was first named to the line of succession shortly after King Salman took power in 2015. As the West’s main Saudi security partner in a crackdown against al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks, he is a man they know well. Famed for his firm hand against extremists, Mohammed bin Nayef has survived four assassination attempts, one of which — by an al Qaeda suicide bomber in 2009 — left him slightly injured.
“He will be remembered for a long time for what he has done to secure the country,” said Sultan al-Saad al-Qahtani, the editor of the Riyadh Post website. “People maybe have mixed feelings about his retirement after three decades of working.
“He had a great harmony with [Mohammed bin Salman] during the last two years, but for medical reasons, he is out of the scene now,” he added.
The rollout of Mohammed bin Nayef’s retirement was replete with symbolism that will cushion the blow for many who admired and respected him. The decrees promised that Wednesday’s decision doesn’t rule out other branches of the family from eventually being king.
The announcement came as many Saudis were finishing their suhoor, the pre-dawn meal before fasting, on one of the last days of Ramadan. This weekend, the holy month will give way to Eid al-Fitr, a celebration of new beginnings. In that spirit, Mohammed bin Salman begins his tenure with the announcement that the kingdom has extended the public holiday by an extra week.
As Mohammed bin Nayef pledged allegiance to the new crown prince, it was Mohammed bin Salman who bowed deeply before his older cousin, kissing his hand repeatedly in a sign of respect.
Mohammed bin Nayef’s brief words in that exchange may be the best summary of what lies behind and ahead. Gone is a generation of Gulf leaders who give deference to ceremony and age. The new generation has been dismissive of such concepts in favor of a purer form of ambition. Whether in countering Iran, pressuring Qatar, or leading an economic shake-up, there is no backing down.
“I will rest now, and may God help you,” Mohammed bin Nayef said as he stepped aside.