Young Saudi Arabian prince holds keys to kingdom

Mohammed bin Salman (29) has quickly accumulated more power than any Saudi prince yet

Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been put in charge of the state oil monopoly, the public investment company, domestic and economic policy and the ministry of defence. Photograph:  Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been put in charge of the state oil monopoly, the public investment company, domestic and economic policy and the ministry of defence. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

 

Until about four months ago, prince Mohammed bin Salman (29) was just another Saudi royal who dabbled in stocks and real estate. He grew up overshadowed by three older half brothers who were among the most accomplished princes in the kingdom – the first Arab astronaut; an Oxford-educated political scientist who was once a research fellow at Georgetown and also founded a major investment company; and a highly regarded deputy oil minister.

But that was before their father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz (79), ascended to the throne. Now Prince Mohammed, the eldest son of the king’s third and most recent wife, is the rising star. He has swiftly accumulated more power than any prince has ever held, upending a longstanding system of distributing positions around the royal family to help preserve its unity. He has used his growing influence to take a leading role in Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and a newly assertive stance toward the region.

In the four months since his coronation, King Salman has put Prince Mohammed in charge of the state oil monopoly, the public investment company, domestic and economic policy, and the ministry of defence. He is the most visible leader of Saudi Arabia’s two-month-old air war in Yemen, and his father has installed him as deputy crown prince, passing over dozens of older princes to put him second in line to the throne.

Stunning the kingdom, King Salman removed his younger brother, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz (69), as crown prince and replaced him with Mohammed Bin Nayef (55), the popular interior minister. The new crown prince has no male heirs, and Prince Mohammed is now next in line.

Escalating wars

Saudi Arabia

The kingdom is financially sustaining the rulers of Egypt and Jordan and propping up the Sunni monarchy in neighbouring Bahrain against a revolt by its Shia majority. It is also arming rebels in Syria against the Iranian-backed president, fighting in the US-led air campaign over Iraq and leading its own air assault on an Iranian-backed faction in Yemen. And it is ramping up its defence spending as plunging oil prices and growing domestic expenditures have reduced its financial reserves by $50 billion (€45 billion) in the past six months to less than $700 billion.

“The king has put his son on an incredibly steep learning curve, clearly,” said Ford M Fraker, president of the Middle East Policy Council and a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “The king is obviously convinced he is up to the challenge.”

But some western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the prince and the king, say they are worried about the growing influence of the prince, with one calling him “rash” and “impulsive”. In interviews, at least two other princes in the main line of the royal family made it clear older members of the clan also have doubts. Both questioned the costs and benefits of the Yemen campaign Prince Mohammed has spearheaded.

King Salman has ultimate authority, and some diplomats who met with both princes in recent months said the crown prince appeared avuncular towards his younger cousin. Several said the older prince appeared to be working hard to guide and train Prince Mohammed. But other diplomats said Prince Mohammed played a major role in instigating the Yemen air campaign.

Wise

Barack Obama

But scholars say the accumulation of so much responsibility in the hands of one branch of the family – to say nothing of one young prince – breaks with a system of intrafamily power-sharing put in place at the founding of the modern Saudi Arabian state by King Abdulaziz eight decades ago. It ended decades of infighting and has helped preserve family unity ever since.

Crown princes had long presided over their own royal courts and executive staff members. Most other ministerial positions – and most importantly those controlling the military, National Guard and internal security – were distributed among other princes. But the critical ministries of oil and finance were kept in neutral, technocratic hands outside the family.

Stripped

The prince is also expected to take over the national guard from his cousin, Mutaib bin Abdullah. The change would consolidate both forces under the defence ministry but fundamentally alter the balance of power inside the family.

Prince Mohammed seemed to be planning for a future in government from an early age, said one family associate who knew him well. Unlike many other Saudi princes of his generation, he never smoked, drank alcohol or stayed out late. “It was obvious to me that he was planning his future – he was always very concerned about his image,” the associate said.

He became a constant presence at the side of his father, according to friends, relatives and associates. Eventually, he held formal titles as adviser to his father, when he was governor of Riyadh and defence minister.

“Being with Prince Salman every minute – can you imagine what you would have learned?” asked Dr Selwa al-Hazzaa, a physician who has cared for the royal family and who is a member of the advisory Shura council appointed by the king. “Do you need someone who has been educated in the States, or someone who has been his father’s shadow?”

Saudi subjects interviewed on the streets of Riyadh in recent days praised Prince Mohammed as a representative of the nearly 70 per cent of the population that is under 30. But several said they worried about his rise. “This is a large family that are competing to be rulers, and having a young guy in control of the government is going to create a lot of problems,” said one middle-aged man at an outdoor cafe who gave his name as Abu Salah. “We are so concerned about the future.” – (New York Times)

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