Tom Overhaug, Staff Member

The House of Saud has ruled Saudi Arabia since 1932 with more or less complete control.[1] The current king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is 87 years old.[2] With only a brief amount of time left in his reign, King Salman has been making efforts to appoint a crown prince with the mannerisms, guile, and political acumen to continue to lead Saudi Arabia in the modern era.[3] For some time, world governments were expecting his son, Muhammad bin Nayef, the then-crown prince, to succeed his father, but King Salman surprised the world when, on June 21, 2017, he issued a royal edict stripping Prince Muhammad of all political and royal titles, effectively excising him from the line of succession.[4] In his place, King Salman appointed his son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman.[5]

Prince Mohammad is young, though hardly untested.[6] He holds a bachelor’s degree in law, and has worked as a special advisor for his father since 2009. He has also served as Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Defense since 2015, a position he still holds.[7] Prince Mohammad has toured the world as an ambassador of his government, meeting with many different world leaders and promoting his country on the international stage.[8] His elevation to crown prince over his cousin in 2017 was somewhat surprising, as then-Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef had been the heir apparent for two years.[9]

What is most striking about Prince Mohammad is not his age or the suddenness of his appointment, however, but his political ideology. The Saudi crown prince seems bound and determined to westernize Saudi Arabia at a heretofore-unrealized pace.[10] The prince has been called “the power behind the throne,”[11] being recognized for promoting and implementing, among other reforms, the recent referendums granting Saudi women the right to drive cars[12] and the right to appear in sport stadiums.[13] Some of his other reforms include spearheading Vision 2030[14] – Saudi Arabia’s economic development program designed to reduce dependency on oil, and restricting the powers of Saudi Arabia’s religious police.[15] Prince Mohammad has said that Saudi Arabia is “returning to what [it was] before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.”[16]

Prince Mohammad’s elevation has not been without controversy, however. He has gathered a reputation as a “gambler,” who is willing to act quickly and without regard for the other countries around Saudi Arabia.[17] In 2015, Saudi Arabia spearheaded an invasion of Yemen in opposition to the Houthi rebels, and in support of the Yemeni Hadi government.[18] The operation lasted some three weeks, and claimed the lives of at least ten-thousand civilians, all the while failing to end the Houthi rebellion.[19] International governments have criticized Saudi Arabia’s role in this offensive, with several agencies, the Human Rights Watch, in particular, labeling some of the Saudi Arabian government’s actions as war crimes.[20] Since 2015, the Saudi government has attempted to focus its efforts on restoring Yemeni infrastructure through a $540 million donation.[21]

The significance of Prince Mohammad’s appointment cannot be understated. While the Middle East continues to be a gridlock of violence, political instability, and tension, Prince Mohammad seems to be an agent of significant change.[22] He has issued public demand for reform both of his country and the Middle East generally, and seems to be open to the idea of reforming some of the institutionalized social injustice that has plagued Saudi Arabia for decades.[23] What remains to be seen is how much of his political discourse is a good faith attempt to re-evaluate and restructure Saudi Arabian society, and how much is a calculated plan to engender political currency among world leaders. If Crown Prince Mohammed is, as he claims to be, an agent of change, then the long reign he stands to inherit from his father could do much to address and repair some of the major issues facing Saudi Arabia.

[1] For a full account of the House of Saud’s rise to power, see Alexei Vassilev, The History of Saudi Arabia (1998).

[2] Asharq Al-Awsat, Profile: New Saudi Defense Minister Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz, http:/www.aawsat.net/2011/11/article55244468 (last visited October 31, 2017).

[3] There have been three separate Saudi crown princes since King Salman ascended to the throne in 2015 – Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, Muhammad bin Nayef, and, most recently, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia’s King Announces New Heirs to Throne, BBC, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32509296 (last visited October 31, 2017).

[4] Nicole Chavez, Saudi Arabia’s King Replaces Nephew with Son as Heir to the Throne, http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/21/middleeast/saudi-arabia-crown-prince/index.html (last visited October 31, 2017).

[5] Id.

[6] At the time of this writing, Prince Mohammad is 32 years old. See Profile Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Al-Jazeera, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/06/profile-saudi-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-170621130040539.html (last visited October 31, 2017).

[7] Id.

[8] See US Diplomat: New Saudi Crown Prince is Israel’s ‘Dream Come True,’ Middle East Monitor, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170704-us-diplomat-new-saudi-crown-prince-is-israels-dream-come-true/ (last visited October 31, 2017) (Israel); Mark Lander & Mark Mazzetti, Trump’s Preferred Candidate Wins Again, This Time in Saudi Arabia, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/21/world/middleeast/trump-saudi-arabia-mohammed-bin-salman.html (last visited October 31, 2017) (United States); Saudi Crown Prince Meets Chinese Vice Premier, Arab News,  http://www.arabnews.com/node/1150391/saudi-arabia (last visited October 31, 2017) (China).

[9] See Saudi King’s Son Mohammed bin Salman is New Crown Prince, BBC http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-40351578 (last visited October 31, 2017).

[10] Prince Mohammed has “swept away many of the ineffective timeservers in government offices and replaced them with young, Western-educated technocrats.” Id.

[11] Interview with Muhammad bin Salman, (Jan. 6, 2016), http://www.economist.com/saudi_interview?fsrc=scn%2Ftw_ec%2Ftranscript_interview_with_
muhammad_bin_salman (last visited October 31, 2017).

[12] Crown Prince Says Saudis Want Return to Moderate Islam, BBC, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41747476 (last visited October 31, 2017).

[13] Saudi Arabia to Allow Women into Sports Stadiums, BBC, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41798481 (last visited October 31, 2017).

[14] See generally Vision 2030, http://vision2030.gov.sa/en (last visited October 31, 2017).

[15] Mark Lander & Mark Mazzetti, Rise of Saudi Prince Shatters Decades of Royal Tradition, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/world/rise-of-saudi-prince-shatters-decades-of-royal-tradition.html (last visited October 31, 2017).

[16] Kingdom a Country of Moderate Islam, Saudi Gazette, http://saudigazette.com.sa/article/520191/SAUDI-ARABIA/Kingdom-a-country-of-moderate-Islam (last visited October 31, 2017).

[17] Gwynne Dyer, Risk-Taking Saudi Prince Gambling with Stability, http://www.lfpress.com/2017/02/08/risk-taking-saudi-prince-gambling-with-stability (last visited October 31, 2017).

[18] Saudi-Led Strikes Hit Houthi Targets Across Yemen, Al-Arabiya English, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/special-reports/yemen-under-occupation/2015/06/22/Saudi-led-strikes-hit-Houthi-targets-across-Yemen.html(last visited October 31, 2017).

[19] Though there is a lack of official data, one report estimated that the Saudi government was spending $200 million per day on the offensive. See Glen Carey, The Saudi Town on the Frontline of Yemen’s War, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-21/in-one-saudi-town-gunfire-all-day-brings-yemen-war-near-home (last visited October 31, 2017).

[20] See Yemen: Attack on Refugee Boat Likely War Crime, Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/26/yemen-attack-refugee-boat-likely-war-crime (last visited October 31, 2017).

[21] See Saudi King Doubles Yemen Aid Pledge to $540 mn, Yahoo News, https://www.yahoo.com/news/saudi-king-doubles-yemen-aid-pledge-540-mn-104046759.html (last visited October 31, 2017).

[22] Prince Mohammad was quoted as saying “[w]hat happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.” Martin Chulov, I Will Return Saudi Arabia to Moderate Islam, Says Crown Prince, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/24/i-will-return-saudi-arabia-moderate-islam-crown-prince (last visited October 31, 2017).

[23] While the crown prince’s actions present significant reform, there are still many hurdles for Saudi women to overcome. See Saudi Arabia Will Let Women Drive, but Here is a List of Things They Still Can’t Do, Haaretz, The Associated Press, & Reuters, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/1.814596 (last visited October 31, 2017).