Riyadh in mid-summer, nearing the end of the Ramadan fast, is a cauldron of searing heat. The political temperature in the Saudi Arabian capital and across the region rose perceptibly this week with the news that a young man in a hurry will one day – and perhaps fairly soon – mount the throne of a country at the heart of the current turmoil in the Middle East.
In the early hours of Wednesday, after the Iftar meal, came the dramatic announcement that King Salman bin Abdelaziz, now 81, was appointing his youngest son as crown prince. Salman, said to be in fragile health, was making a significant change that confirms ambitious modernisation plans and the continuation of controversial foreign and defence policies.
Mohammed bin Salman, who will be 32 on his next birthday, replaced his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef – in the predictable denouement of a struggle that has fed feverish speculation at home and abroad for the last three years. The news was sealed with a televised embrace between the two princes. Appearances matter – especially when royal families are divided.
MBS, as he is known, has been making waves since he was appointed deputy crown prince, defence minister and economic supremo in 2014. Tall and imposing, he bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather Abdelaziz Ibn Saud, who bequeathed the family name to the state he established in the 1920s.
Bin Nayef, referred to as MBN, had served as the kingdom's security chief and counter-terrorist supremo, and was liked by western governments which value Riyadh's co-operation in those shadowy realms. MBN, low key and discreet, fretted about Saudi jihadis who went to fight Bashar al-Assad in Syria – fearing blowback when they came home.
New crown prince
The new crown prince has been making headlines ever since he put together a team of consultants and ministers working on Vision 2030 – a grandiose plan to prepare pampered Saudis for a life after oil by diversifying, privatising and modernising the largest economy in the Arab world. It has so far meant tax increases, subsidy and spending cuts – which didn’t stop the rising star from reportedly paying €500 million for a yacht owned by a Russian tycoon.
The jewel in the crown is a plan to privatise Aramco, the state oil company, which in the past provided a staggering 90 per cent of the country's revenues. Now it stands to become the biggest stock market offering in global financial history.
The word most often used to describe MBS is "assertive". It is applied not only to his economic strategy but his readiness to use force, most notably against the Houthi rebels who overthrew the government of neighbouring Yemen – the kingdom's impoverished backyard and a breeding ground for al-Qaeda.
MBS is said to have promised a speedy victory in 2015 when the Saudis put together a coalition with the UAE, Egypt and others. Two years on, with thousands of Yemenis dead from bombing and malnourishment and with cholera spreading, that looks reckless – and is an embarrassment for the US, Britain and other allies and arms suppliers. "MBS is the prince of war and oil," is the judgement of Madawi al-Rasheed, a London-based Saudi historian and fierce critic.
In the last few weeks, the Saudis have been at the centre of a new crisis after initiating an unprecedented blockade of neighbouring Qatar, the super-rich Gulf maverick which annoys its larger neighbours by backing the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian Hamas and other Islamists from Syria to Libya.
‘A soft coup’
The Saudis' many enemies have been outraged, accusing Riyadh of plotting regime change in Doha and working to establish economic links with Israel and betray the suffering Palestinians. Iran, the kingdom's great strategic rival and powerhouse of the Shia Muslim world, is especially scathing. It called the MBS appointment "a soft coup" and warned him against "adventurism".
The Saudis in turn are obsessed by Tehran, pointing to its backing for Shia forces in Iraq, to support for Assad along with its Lebanese ally Hizbullah, and more recently for the Houthis in Yemen. "We will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia, " MBS warned recently, ringing alarm bells over the heightened tensions..
"The US and Britain . . . would do well to try and curb the prince's enthusiasm before he becomes king," warned Jamal Elshayyal, a commentator with the Qatari-owned al-Jazeera TV, now banned in Riyadh. "Otherwise they could be faced with a monarch who wages war on a whim and understands little in the way of international diplomacy."
Propaganda, smears and media wars always make it hard to understand Saudi Arabia, which requires a sort of Middle Eastern Kremlinology to decipher royal rivalries and rumours of corruption, all reported on a hyperactive social media scene. Expensive American and British PR agencies earn top dollar honing messages about Vision 2030 and arranging carefully staged interviews with MBS to burnish his image. The official line from them and from Riyadh is that his appointment will usher in a period of “stability and certainty”.
MBS was quickly congratulated by Donald Trump, who he met first in Washington and then at the Riyadh summit in May – Trump's first official trip abroad and a "monumental and epic" experience in his words. The US president's anti-Iranian rhetoric – very different from Barack Obama's long effort to secure a nuclear deal with Tehran – was music to Saudi ears, and was widely seen as emboldening the young prince.
"Saudi Arabia's decision to cut ties with Qatar sends a clear statement about what Doha can expect from Riyadh in the coming decades," Elizabeth Dickinson commented in Foreign Policy. "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."
Dr Ian Black is a visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Centre, the London School of Economics, and the former Middle East editor and diplomatic editor of the Guardian