ABU DHABI // Amid regional tensions and economic uncertainty, an unprecedented generational power shift in Saudi Arabia was solidified on Wednesday with the promotion of Prince Mohammed bin Salman to crown prince.
Members of the royal Al Saud family and other prominent officials travelled to Mecca on Wednesday evening to pledge their allegiance to the new heir to the throne, after the ascension and other decrees that placed a number of young princes in prominent positions were announced early in the morning.
The former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, was relieved of his position as successor and his post as interior minister, in a move that cemented Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent to power as the driving force behind sweeping changes over the past two and a half years to the kingdom’s oil-based economy, social contract and posture in the region.
Saudi media broadcast footage of the new crown prince bowing to the elder Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and kissing his hand in a show of respect, as the former crown prince pledged loyalty to his successor.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman is now also deputy prime minister and retains the key positions of defence minister, chair of the state oil company and architect of Saudi’s vast economic diversification plan.
The former crown prince’s 33-year-old nephew, Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, was named as the new interior minister. The young prince had been an assistant to his uncle at the ministry, and for the past six months had worked at the defence ministry, under Prince Mohammed, Al Arabiya reported.
Saudi Arabia’s Allegiance Council voted 31-3 in support of the ascension of Prince Mohammed. The young sons of a number of influential princes of the older generation who sit on the council were made ambassadors and promoted to key government positions.
King Salman also issued a number of decrees along with the promotion that has made Prince Mohammed next in line to the throne. These included an amendment of the country’s basic law that requires the next crown prince to not be from the same branch of the royal family as the king, widely seen as a concession to other branches of the family. Given that Prince Mohammed is in his early 30s, he could rule the kingdom for decades.
Another decree further rolled back reductions to allowances for state employees — two-thirds of the workforce — that lasted for 8 months but were ended in April after public discontent and what Riyadh said was greater fiscal leeway and a plan to stimulate the economy. The decree stipulated that the benefits withheld over that period will be back paid.
■ Mohammed bin Salman: The meteoric rise of Saudi Arabia's new crown prince
■ Mohammed bin Nayef: The Saudi crown prince destined never to wear the crown
■ Video: Saudi Arabia's new crown prince
■ Opinion: crown prince appointment ushers in a new, dynamic Saudi Arabia
The removal of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, his older cousin, was not entirely unexpected by close followers of royal politics inside the kingdom. But many had assumed that the unprecedented skipping of a generation of the royal family after 70 years of rule by King Abdulaziz’s sons would only occur once the assertive and by all accounts hard-working young prince had proved that his radical policies had succeeded. These include the war in Yemen and the Vision 2030 economic reform plan to end what he has described as the kingdom’s “addiction” to oil.
With his elevation to crown prince, ambiguity over who will lead the kingdom and questions over whether the aggressive policies will last have been made clearer. Along with the portfolios that were already consolidated under his control, he will chair the cabinet, concentrating power in his hands further and bring the interior ministry under his control. Some ministries were loathe to coordinate or cede power, but that may now change.
“There are many implications — this will offer a real stability in the minds of the people, in local or foreign investors” who have remained sceptical about Vision 2030 and whether it would fall by the wayside like previous plans under a different king, said Hesham Alghannam, a political analyst in Riyadh. “What’s next in the Saudi kingdom? We were with this question for the last 20 years,” he added. “Now it seems that for the first time the path is very clear for the future.”
Previously a slow, but predictable, process of consensus drove policymaking in Riyadh. The promotion of Prince Mohammed is set to upend that model, which has not kept up with the pace of change needed to address the kingdom’s acute challenges. If he can register successes in key areas, especially the economic diversification plan, it will be difficult for other parts of the royal family unhappy with his ascension to undermine his position.
Prince Mohammed is popular with many young Saudis who are hungry for economic and social changes within the conservative but rapidly changing society, and leadership that reflects the concerns of their generation. The crown prince has also placed curbs on the religious police and worked to increase access to entertainment in the kingdom.
“The average age of higher ups in government was above 65,” said Saeed Al Wahabbi, a Saudi columnist and analyst. “Now there’s a crown prince who is 31, surrounded by young people, speaks in the language of tech, has been more publicly exposed than any other crown prince — it’s a big change for young people.”
Observers said those social changes are now likely to be accelerated. “I’m expecting women’s driving to happen this year, it’s a low hanging fruit,” said Mr Alwahabbi. “Social pressure will be relaxed a bit more, the whole country will be more orientated toward the economy” and the transformation plan. Increasing the proportion of women in the workforce is a key component.
There has been some push back from the religious establishment within the state and groups in society to some of the measures he has enacted. His promotion to crown prince, with so many files under his command, may increase his ability to push for deeper reforms. Legalisation of driving for women will be a key test.
Conservative religious forces in society “may try but i don’t think they have the strength to block any reforms”, said Mr Alghannam. “I think, especially now, the state is very strong.”
Prince Mohammed has also overseen a much more aggressive foreign policy with the intervention in Yemen, desire to confront Iran and the recent moves to isolate Qatar and force it to fall in line with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Many were surprised that his promotion came with the crisis with Qatar at its peak, but there was general agreement among analysts that Saudi’s desire to become more active in shaping a region in turmoil will likely grow. Prospects for Doha’s push for US-mediated negotiations may grow even more remote, while a negotiated settlement to the Yemen conflict and any detente with Iran may also become less likely in the short term.
“The key question is what comes next in this quest to counter Iranian influence? Is the Qatar blockade simply the opening act?” Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, told Reuters.