Expert Commentary on the Appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as Saudi’s New Crown Prince

On June 21, 2017 Saudi Arabia’s king appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as crown prince, replacing the king’s nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, as first in line to the throne. Bin Salman, who is just 31 years old, is known as an ambitious member of the royal family who wields an unprecedented amount of power for one of his age, especially in a country that puts a great deal of emphasis on age and power sharing within the state structures. He is known for making drastic changes to the economy, such as implementing austerity measures on government employees and trying to move Saudi’s economy away from oil, and for pushing for reforms in Saudi, such allowing new forms of entertainment and loosening social restrictions that young people complain of. He is also known for initiating Saudi’s involvement in the war in Yemen, which has since dragged out and cost Saudi billions.

Rafik Hariri Center experts were asked to comment on the crown prince’s appointment. Their answers are below.

Ambassador Frederic C. Hof
“The change in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s succession plan places on Washington the urgent and heavy responsibility to exercise assertive leadership in the Gulf region. The new Crown Prince accords great weight to the Saudi-American bilateral relationship and has invested heavily in building ties of trust and confidence with President Trump. No doubt he was counting on that relationship to generate support when he and his Emirati partners recently moved against Qatar. No doubt he counts on that relationship to help sustain a military campaign in Yemen whose catastrophic costs to the people of Yemen mount daily. Presumably Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will listen carefully to President Trump on the need to calm the Qatari controversy if and when the president aligns himself with the policy articulated by the Departments of State and Defense. Presumably the new Crown Prince will take the American President seriously if Mr. Trump advises him forthrightly that the Yemen war must be ended quickly. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a person of great talent and ambition: someone who seems to represent well a generation of Saudis determined to move the Kingdom in new and worthwhile directions. His affinity for Washington places on Washington the heavy responsibility to help him succeed. This bilateral relationship is far too important for Washington to fall short of providing this service.”

Dr. H.A. Hellyer
“The elevation of Mohammad bin Salman to the position of Crown Prince has long been suspected to be a likely scenario—but few expected it to take place this quickly. What that means for Saudi foreign policy is unclear—will the new power consolidation mean an escalation in terms of Saudi policy in Yemen, with Qatar or Iran? There is no certainty in that regard. This change appears to be fundamentally driven by domestic considerations—but it has impacts on Western policy particularly as Mohammed bin Nayef was seen as a reliable ally by many Western capitals, and he has now departed from the scene. Bin Salman’s vision of domestic reforms are probably going to be further empowered—which may lead to an interesting challenge with the domestic purist Salafi religious establishment—but how he navigates all of that is yet to be seen.”

Richard LeBaron
“In the opaque clouds of Saudi decision-making, the predictable yet nonetheless surprising anointment of Mohammed Bin Salman doesn’t offer any clear indicators of changes to Saudi policy. The new Crown Prince has been the virtual heir since his father took the throne, and since then the major player in Saudi security and economic policy. He would be well-advised to use the receipt of his lofty new title to take a reflective step back and examine the merits of trying clumsily to enmesh the United States in Gulf intramural rivalries. He also might want to reflect on the tragedy of Yemen. Yemen is his problem, and it is going from bad to worse. Nothing the Saudis have done recently has improved their strategic position related to Iran, despite prevailing in this battle for regional leadership being their first priority.”

Mohammed Alyahya
“The transition could not have been more seamless and smooth. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef submitted his blessings of the transition in writing to King Salman yesterday, and after this the Royal family’s allegiance council convened to vote on the decision. 31 out of 34 members voted in favor of the transition, reflecting a near-consensus among key members of the royal family. I don’t expect any radical shifts in policy as a result of the change because foreign relations, social change, economic and energy policy, and defense matters have largely been within the purview of Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the past few years. We’re likely to see a continuation of policy on these matters. However, we will likely see a more streamlined and efficient decision-making process as a result of the consolidation of executive power among fewer key decision-makers. It is also important to note that one of the fundamental drivers of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s success in counterterrorism and managing the Interior Ministry was the fact that he invested in the MOI [Ministry of Interior] as an institution and delegated responsibility and built mechanisms designed to ensure institutional continuity after he departs. Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Naif, Prince Mohammed’s nephew and trusted advisor was named interior minister. Before his post as advisor to the Minister of Interior, he was an advisor to Prince Mohammed bin Salman for two years. Also, the senior officers he cultivated are still around and some of them have been promoted such as Major General Saud al-Hilal, who was named head of the Saudi General Security Directorate. General al-Hilal is credited with designing and spearheading the operation that led to the killing of al-Qaida’s leader in Saudi Arabia Abdulaziz al Muqrin in 2004. He is well known and respected in US and European intelligence circles as a no-nonsense, counter-terrorism professional and a capable security officer.”

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Richard LeBaron is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Mohammed Alyahya is a non-resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof, H.A. Hellyer, and Mohammed Khalid Alyahya

Image: Photo: U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (2nd R) and chief economic advisor Gary Cohn (R), delivers remarks to reporters after meeting with Saudi Arabia's then-Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman (L), and now Crown Prince, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst