Young prince named first in line to throne in Saudi Arabia.
King Salman promotes 31-year-old son over counterterrorism czar
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA | In an unexpected break with precedent, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman appointed his 31-year-old son Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince on Wednesday, placing him first-inline to the throne and laying the groundwork for an entirely new generation of royals to take the reins.
Saudi Arabia’s once powerful counterterrorism czar, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, was removed from the line of succession — giving the younger prince a firmer hold on the kingdom’s shifting foreign policy, a shift that includes closer ties with the Trump administration, a sharpening rivalry with Iran, a costly war in neighboring Yemen and a new campaign to isolate Qatar.
The appointment of such a young royal as the immediate heir to the throne essentially sets Saudi policy for decades in the hands of a man seen as a risk-taker, in a kingdom known for caution.
“He could be there for 50 years,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. “If you look at it positively, it is basically setting Saudi Arabia’s course into the 21st century.”
The shuffle stripped Mohammed bin Nayef of his title as crown prince and interior minister, overseeing security.
President Trump, who received a warm welcome in Riyadh on a visit last month, spoke Wednesday with the crown prince to congratulate the 31-year-old on the news, the White House said Wednesday.
The White House said Mr. Trump and the crown prince “discussed the priority of cutting off all support for terrorists and extremists, as well as how to resolve the ongoing dispute with Qatar,” the White House said. “They discussed efforts to achieve a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
The all-but-certain takeover of the throne by Mohammed bin Salman awards vast powers to a young prince who has taken a hard-line with Iran and who has led a controversial war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians. Iran’s state TV has called the appointment a “soft coup” in its main rival for influence in the region.
The prince, known as MBS, already oversees a vast portfolio as defense minister. He has also become popular among some of Saudi Arabia’s youth, who make up the bulk of the population, for pursuing reforms that have opened the deeply conservative country to entertainment and greater foreign investments as part of an effort to overhaul the economy, including plans to list a percentage of the state-run oil giant Saudi Aramco on public markets.
The young prince was relatively unknown to Saudis before Salman became king in January 2015. He had previously been in charge of his father’s royal court when Salman was the crown prince.
MBS is now poised to become the first Saudi monarch from a generation of royals who represent the grandsons of the country’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz. For decades, the throne has passed from elderly brother to elderly brother — all sons of the late founder.
The recasting of the line of succession marks the first real test of the ruling Al Saud family’s ability to manage the inevitable generational shift from the sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder to his grandsons, said Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
Another young prince also ascended to power on Wednesday. Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud, 33, was named the new interior minister overseeing counterterrorism efforts and domestic security. His father is the governor of Saudi Arabia’s vast Eastern Province, home to much of the country’s oil wealth and most of its minority Shiites.
Both young princes hail from the powerful Sudairi branch of the royal family.
The royal decree stated that “a majority” of senior royal family members — 31 out of 34 — from the so-called Allegiance Council support the recasting of the line of succession. The Council is comprised of senior princes who gather in secret and vote to pick the king and crown prince from among themselves.
Even when there is disagreement, the royal family has long followed a tradition of speaking with one voice, particularly on issues of succession, in order to appear united in front of Saudi Arabia’s many tribes and communities.
After the decrees were announced, Saudi TV aired footage of the new crown prince warmly greeting the man he is replacing, Mohammed bin Nayef. MBS is shown kissing his older cousin’s hand and kneeling before him; the outgoing crown prince is heard telling him: “I will rest now, and God help you.”
Mohammed bin Nayef was once a towering figure credited with crushing al-Qaida’s cells in Saudi Arabia. He worked closely with Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks, helping to share intelligence to thwart more attacks.
Despite his ambitions, Prince Mohammed has faced criticism for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has failed to dislodge Iranian-allied rebels known as Houthis from the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and has had devastating effects on the impoverished country.
The newly minted crown prince has also used fighting words to describe Iran, vowing to take “the battle” to the Shiite-ruled country. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s rivalry has played out in proxy wars across the region and has deepened Sunni-Shiite enmity between hard-liners on both sides.
Mohammed bin Salman (left), newly appointed as crown prince, kisses the hand of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef at the royal palace in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.