BEIRUT, Lebanon — King Salman of Saudi Arabia promoted his 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, to be next in line to the throne on Wednesday, further empowering a young and ambitious leader who has upended the ruling family at a time of deep Saudi involvement in conflicts across the Middle East.
The king’s decision to remove the previous crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, capped two and a half years of dramatic changes that have erased decades of royal custom and reordered the power structure inside the kingdom, a close American ally. And it came as Saudi Arabia was already grappling with low oil prices, and intensifying hostilities both with Iran and in its own circle of Sunni Arab states.
In sweeping aside Mohammed bin Nayef, the king marginalized a large cadre of older princes, many with foreign educations and decades of government experience that the younger prince lacks. If Mohammed bin Salman does succeed his father, he could rule the kingdom for many decades.
Prince Mohammed’s swift rise and growing influence had already rankled other princes who accused him of undermining Mohammed bin Nayef. But such complaints are likely to remain private in a ruling family that prizes stability above all else.Continue reading the main story
“A lot of people are happy that a younger generation is coming to power, but those who are upset are the older generation, no doubt about it, who are not to used to this kind of dramatic change,” said Joseph A. Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, who has extensive contacts inside the family. “Even if people are uncomfortable, at the end of the day this is a monarchical decision, and people will either have to accept the new arrangement or they will essentially have to keep their mouths shut.”
The young prince, known as M.B.S., emerged from obscurity after his 81-year-old father ascended to the throne in January 2015. He has since accumulated vast powers, serving as defense minister, overseeing the state oil monopoly, working to overhaul the Saudi economy and building ties with foreign leaders, including President Trump.
His supporters praise him as working hard to fulfill a hopeful vision for the kingdom’s future, especially for its large youth population. His critics call him power hungry, and fear that his inexperience has embroiled Saudi Arabia in costly problems with no clear exits, like the war in neighboring Yemen.
Since the death of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz Al Saud, in 1953, control of the absolute monarchy has been passed between his sons, a system that raised questions about the future as the brothers grew older and began dying.
After ascending the throne, King Salman addressed the issue by naming Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince, the first time a member of the third generation was put in the line of succession.
Now, the royal reordering has ended the career of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who served as interior minister and was widely respected by Saudis and their foreign allies for dismantling Al Qaeda’s networks in the kingdom after a string of deadly bombings a decade ago.
King Salman’s decrees on Wednesday removed Mohammed bin Nayef from both the line of succession and his post as interior minister, to which he named Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, 33, another young prince with little experience relevant to the ministry’s extensive security, law enforcement and intelligence duties.
Another of the king’s sons, Prince Khalid bin Salman, was recently named ambassador to the United States. He is believed to be in his late 20s.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise has been meteoric.
Since his father named him deputy crown prince, or second in line to the throne, he has spearheaded the development of a wide-ranging plan, Saudi Vision 2030, which seeks to decrease the country’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy and loosen some of the conservative, Islamic kingdom’s social restrictions.
As defense minister, he had primary responsibility for the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen, where it is leading a coalition of Arab allies in a bombing campaign aimed at pushing Houthi rebels from the capital and at restoring the government.
That campaign has made limited progress in more than two years, and human rights groups have accused the Saudis of bombing civilians, destroying the economy of the Arab world’s poorest country, and exacerbating a humanitarian crisis by imposing air and sea blockades.
Prince Mohammed has taken a hard line on Iran, saying in a television interview last month that dialogue with the Shiite power was impossible because it sought to take control of the Islamic world.
“We are a primary target for the Iranian regime,” he said, accusing Tehran of seeking to take over Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia, which is home to Mecca and Medina. “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”
Saudi Arabia and Iran stand on opposite sides of conflicts in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen while seeking to lessen each other’s influence across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Prince Mohammed has looked for mentorship to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The two men have recently worked in tandem to isolate Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism, an accusation their small neighbor denies.
The removal of Mohammed bin Nayef, who had warm relations with the emir of Qatar and his father, could make it even harder for the tiny nation to reach an accommodation with its neighbors, analysts said. And some wondered whether the young prince’s assertiveness would further destabilize the region.
“This is a time when we really need some quiet diplomacy. We need coolheaded politicians who are able to defuse tensions rather than inflame them,” said Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “There has been a far more aggressive stance in Saudi foreign policy under King Salman, and now it might get worse.”
Prince Mohammed faces great economic challenges, with low oil prices continuing to sap the state budget, scarce job opportunities for the kingdom’s youth and declining consumer confidence.
Saudi Arabia reported a 4 percent rise in its domestic stock market after the changes were announced. But oil prices continued to fall on Wednesday, with the international crude benchmark dropping 1 percent to around $45.50 a barrel.
Prince Mohammed’s increasing power over the world’s largest oil exporter could have far-reaching consequences.
Traditionally, the Saudi royal family largely left the operation of the energy industry to technocrats, but Prince Mohammed has taken a more direct role.
In particular, he has drawn criticism for driving an initial public offering of the state oil giant, Saudi Aramco, a highly secretive company that has underpinned the kingdom’s economy and generated tremendous wealth for decades. He has also made pronouncements on oil production policy that sometimes seemed to undercut more experienced Saudi energy officials.
“The problem is that he is unpredictable, and it is not clear who he is relying on for advice,” said Paul Stevens, a Middle East oil analyst at Chatham House, a London-based research organization.
Prince Mohammed’s promotion comes at an awkward time for the Saudi oil industry.
Production cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, largely orchestrated by the Saudis last year, have so far failed to lift flagging prices, presenting the Saudis and other big oil producers with few good options. Major oil exporters could further cut output, or the Saudis could go back to a policy they pursued in late 2014: allowing prices to fall, forcing smaller, lower-margin producers out of the market and, as a result, grabbing more market share.
Prince Mohammed has pursued a uniquely public profile for the traditionally private kingdom, giving interviews to Western news outlets and taking high-profile trips to China, Russia and the United States, where he dined with Mr. Trump in March.
Saudi news outlets portrayed the move as an orderly reshuffle, repeatedly broadcasting a video clip of the new crown prince deferentially kissing the hand of his predecessor and saying that 31 of 34 members of a council of senior princes had approved the appointment.
The departing prince’s profile had waned as that of his younger cousin grew, although he remained popular with the Western officials he cooperated with on security and intelligence matters.
In 2009, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was wounded when a militant, who came to his palace saying he wanted to turn himself in, detonated a bomb hidden in his rectum. People who have met with the prince recently said the injury’s effects have lingered, although it was unclear whether they played a role in the king’s decision to replace him.