WASHINGTON ― The decision by Saudi Arabia’s aging King Salman to have his son, Muhammed bin Salman, succeed him as the next ruler of the powerful kingdom reaffirms the young prince’s policies despite international criticism and signals that the Saudis remain committed to an aggressive approach to the Middle East.
That posture, which has worried some observers in the U.S., could spur greater escalation with regional rival Iran and presents challenges to traditional U.S. policies in the region.
Following the announcement that Muhammed bin Salman would take the crown prince spot from his cousin, Muhammed bin Nayef, experts noted the future king’s deep involvement in three controversial Saudi foreign policy moves: the recent push against U.S. partner nation Qatar; the brutal campaign against Iran-backed militants in Yemen; and efforts since 2016 to slash even limited engagement with Iran.
At 31 years old, Muhammed bin Salman could rule Saudi Arabia for decades once he ascends the throne. He already has had outsized influence for years because of his closeness with his 81-year-old father.
The prince’s independent, aggressive view of foreign policy has earned Saudi Arabia reprimands from traditional friends in the U.S. Congress. But it’s been hugely influential in the region because historic counterweights to the Saudis, such as Egypt and Syria, have been preoccupied with their own problems, and because of his ties to the wealthy, well-connected government of the United Arab Emirates. In an April email to prominent Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, UAE ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba emphasized the importance to his government of the prince: “Our job now [is to do] everything possible to ensure MBS [Muhammed bin Salman] succeeds.”
The UAE relationship was critical to Muhammed bin Salman’s involvement in the attempt to isolate Qatar. It suggests that he will take a hard line on Qatar-friendly Islamist movements around the region, even if they have no connection to violence. Such a policy could cause increased tension in countries including Turkey and Egypt.
The prince is also known for backing a proposal to diversify the Saudi economy and reduce its reliance on revenue from oil exports. Echoing suggestions from U.S. management consultants, the plan ― Saudi Vision 2030 ― initially earned broad international praise. It excited young Saudis who have few opportunities to change things or attempt fresh ideas in the kingdom and sparked some loosening of strict state controls on citizens’ morality.
But its implementation has been spotty and painful, with the government forced as recently as April to roll back some austerity measures. And human rights groups have noted that state suppression of dissent continues and may even expand under the cover of apparent liberalization.
Oil, meanwhile, remains central to the Saudi state’s functioning. Persistently low prices limit the kingdom’s influence, and Muhammed bin Salman has been seen as thoughtless at times in his statements on how to handle the vital resource.
Despite some grumbling within the sprawling Saudi royal family that may intensify with the replacement of the widely respected former crown prince, Muhammed bin Salman’s nationalism and youth have kept him popular among the kingdom’s citizens. Commentators noted that Muhammed bin Nayef, the ousted prince, pledged allegiance to the future king, and that the king’s announcement of fresh appointments included plum posts for younger royals.
The Trump administration appeared to welcome the developments. President Donald Trump called Muhammed bin Salman to congratulate him, and the young prince is known to have developed a good relationship with Trump’s son-in-law, White House aide Jared Kushner.
But differences over Qatar still loom large. Muhammed bin Salman’s policy of isolating the country runs counter to efforts by top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, to affirm that country’s standing among U.S. partners. The State Department criticized the Saudi position just yesterday, and Trump raised it in his call with the prince, according to a White House statement.
Tillerson issued a curt statement suggesting the Saudis had made some progress on the Qatar issue and that Washington wanted to see more. “We understand a list of demands has been prepared and coordinated by the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, and Bahrainis. We hope the list of demands will soon be presented to Qatar and will be reasonable and actionable,” he said. “We support the Kuwaiti mediation effort and look forward to this matter moving toward a resolution.”
It’s unclear how soon Muhammed bin Salman will take over. By Wednesday, rumors were already swirling that his ascension could occur in a matter of months.
This story has been updated to include statements from President Trump and Secretary Tillerson.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Prince Muhammed bin Nayef is the uncle of Prince Muhammed bin Salman. The two are cousins.