RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ousted his nephew as crown prince on Wednesday and installed his son Mohammed bin Salman, capping a meteoric rise for the 31-year-old that puts him one step from the throne.
The young prince already wielded huge power before he was named heir, spearheading a sweeping economic and social reform programme for the ultraconservative kingdom.
His rise comes at a crucial time for Saudi Arabia as it is locked in a battle for regional influence with arch rival Iran, bogged down in a controversial military intervention in neighbouring Yemen and at loggerheads with fellow US Gulf ally Qatar.
His youth is a novelty for a country that is used to ageing leaders — Mohammed’s father is 81.
His rapid ascent over the past two years has symbolised the hopes of the kingdom’s young population, more than half of which is under 25.
Footage aired on Saudi television channels showed the bearded Mohammed bin Salman kissing the hand of his ousted cousin Mohammed bin Nayef and kneeling in front of the older prince, who patted his shoulder to congratulate him.
“I am going to rest now. May God help you,” the former crown prince said, to which his replacement replied: “May God help you. I will never do without your advice.”
The king called on governors and other princes to pledge allegiance to his new heir and ordered a ceremony after night prayers on Wednesday at a royal palace in Mecca. Many ordinary citizens tweeted their allegiance
The king accompanied his son’s elevation with several measures to woo the many Saudis who are government employees, either civilian or military.
He ordered the reinstatement of all civil service benefits cut as part of an austerity package earlier this year. He also extended the end-of-Ramazan Eid Al-Fitr holidays until July 9 for all public sector employees.
As deputy crown prince, the new heir to the throne already held multiple posts
He is the main champion of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan which aims to bring social and economic change to the oil-dependent economy of a country where women’s rights are among the most restricted in the world.
The Saudi stock market rose four percent on news that the king had named him as crown prince and that the exchange had moved closer to joining a major global index.
Mohammed is also defence minister with overall responsibility for the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen, although analysts say that he has increasingly left day-to-day management of the campaign to his generals.
Saudi Arabia leads a coalition which has fought alongside the Yemeni government against rebels who control the capital Sanaa.
It has provided ground troops, enforced an air and sea blockade, and conducted a bombing campaign that has drawn repeated criticism from human rights groups for the high number of civilian casualties.
Calling the shots
Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen in March 2015 signalled a more aggressive foreign policy, emphasised again this month when the kingdom and its allies imposed an embargo on neighbouring Qatar.
They accused Doha of supporting extremists, a charge it denies.
The rift marked the region’s worst diplomatic crisis in years and drew some concern in Washington but Riyadh has remained unapologetic.
The move reflects Mohammed’s “calling the shots” in the kingdom, said Andreas Krieg of the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London.
A visit to Saudi Arabia by US President Donald Trump in May, when he held talks with the then deputy crown prince, signalled that Mohammed “could be more confrontational”, Krieg said.
His appointment as heir to the throne completes a gradual stripping of power from the ousted crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, who has also been fired as deputy prime minister and interior minister.
An April government and security shakeup prepared the way for Mohammed bin Salman’s rise, when a number of his allies were appointed to prominent positions and a brother was named ambassador to Washington.
Salman had already set a precedent for removal of a crown prince when, in April 2015, he appointed Mohammed bin Nayef and fired Prince Moqren bin Abdul Aziz bin Saud, an appointee of the late King Abdullah.
Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef — the ousted interior minister’s nephew — was named to replace him.
He takes control of the security forces at a time when the kingdom has been hit by periodic shootings and bombings claimed by the Islamic State group and faces discontent among its Shiite minority.