On Wednesday morning King Salman of Saudi Arabia named his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the next heir to the Saudi throne, sweeping aside his son’s oldest rival, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. King Salman’s royal decree removed his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, from the line of succession and from his post as interior minister. The promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to the position of crown prince marks the end of the gradual removal of powers from the previous Mohammed bin Nayef.
While some are calling the royal decree emblematic of a coup d’état in which Mohammed bin Nayef has been ousted; the decision has not come as a shock. It is the case that the timing has been unexpected, but the influence of Mohammed bin Salman has been consistently growing culminating in this decision. The new crown prince has enjoyed growing influence following his father’s accession to the throne in 2015. Shortly after King Salman’s accession to the throne, he was appointed as defence minister and later in the same year was named deputy crown prince.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s influence is perhaps most apparent in his role as defence minister in leading Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen fighting the Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen. It is widely believed that Mohammed bin Salman has been a driving force behind the decision to cut diplomatic ties and enforce a blockade on Qatar. Despite being behind this inconclusive and damaging military campaign, he is popular amongst Saudis for his reforms to the country’s ineffective state bureaucracy and his new long term economic plan “Vision 2030” which aims to wean the Kingdom off its dependence on oil.
Prince Mohammad bin Salman, as Defence Minister, with US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis before a bi-lateral meeting held at the Pentagon, Washington DC, March 16 2017.
King Salman’s decision to cement the position of Mohammed bin Salman brings into question what the consequences in the region will be, particularly with regards to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Significantly, the decision to replace the 57-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef with King Salman’s 31-year-old son will give the Kingdom something it has not experienced in over half a century – a young King with the potential to rule for over 4 decades.
It is too early to predict the precise effects of this appointment on the stance of the Kingdom with regards to respective nation states in the region. That being said, given the current aggressive stance under King Salman towards Iran, it is likely that this will either continue or worsen under the crown prince. What is for sure, is that Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment will have significant ramifications for Middle Eastern politics, and more specifically for the Gulf, in the long-term.