King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia ousted his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef and replaced him with his son Mohammed bin Salman as the Crown Prince on June 21, confirming the 31-year-old as his heir. By doing so, the king consolidated Riyadh’s move to reassert its influence as a regional power. Prince Mohammed, who was serving as the Saudi Defence Minister, has also been appointed as Deputy PM by his father.
Almost half of the current population of Saudi Arabia is youth. According to political observers, this factor encouraged King Salman to select the 31-year-old young man (instead of a 57-year-old veteran) as his successor.
Prince Nayef, too, had come to power suddenly. King Salman had nominated him as the Crown Prince on April 29, 2015 by removing then Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Muqrin served as Crown Prince only for four months (January-April 2015). Nayef not only served as home minister, but also as First Deputy Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia. Even, he was the Chairman of the Council for Political and Security Affairs. America and its Western allies had praised Nayef for his role in the war against terrorism, especially against al-Qaeda. They thought that Nayef, a veteran security tsar, would replace Salman as the next Saudi king in future. So, the sudden transfer of power is really surprising for the US and Europe.
In fact, King Salman’s move also surprised Iran – Saudi’s main political rival in West Asia and another regional power. Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in proxy conflicts across West Asia and the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar came in part over Riyadh’s conciliatory relationship with Tehran. Immediately after King Salman made the announcement, the Iranian state television called the Saudi appointment “a soft coup”. Seyed Hossein Naghavi-Hosseini, a senior Iranian MP and Speaker of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, urged restraint from the Saudis, saying: “After the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as the crown prince, we urge Saudi officials to act with prudence and according to international norms and they should know their limits.”
Salman was not so popular outside his country before taking over as the king in 2015 and Mohammed’s power increased significantly only after his father came to power. Right now, young Mohammed is the most popular face in Saudi political circles. Observers believe he enjoys the real power in his country.
The new Crown Prince wants Riyadh to maintain cordial ties with all the major global powers. So, he has visited many countries to share his plans for the economic development of Saudi Arabia with top world leaders. Prince Mohammed met American President Donald Trump at the White House in March to discuss defence-related issues. They also discussed various ways to bolster bilateral ties. If America refused to help us, we would end up like North Korea, said Prince Mohammed after holding talks with President Trump.
The young prince has also played an important role in forging Saudi Arabia’s working relationships with Russia in recent times, as he is determined to reduce his country’s economic dependence on oil. According to sources close to the Saudi Royal family, the prince, a frequent visitor to the Kremlin, enjoys some degree of personal rapport with President Vladimir Putin. Even China has welcomed Prince Mohammed’s ‘Vision 2030’ for the development of Saudi Arabia. The prince, who wants Riyadh to join China’s ‘One Belt and One Road’ initiative in order to enjoy economic benefits, might allow Beijing to set up a drone factory in Saudi Arabia.
Although ‘reformer’ Mohammed’s promotion to Crown Prince had long been expected among those who closely follow the royal family, the timing was a surprise. Some believe King Salman puts the kingdom’s future in relatively untested hands. Only time will tell whether they are right.
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