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Saudi Arabia’s Game of Thrones

PRINCETON – Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has just replaced the 57-year-old Muhammad bin Nayif with his 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, as crown prince, completing a process of power centralization that began with Salman’s accession to the throne in January 2015.

Prince Mohammed, commonly known as MBS in Western circles, is the king’s favorite son. By appointing him as crown prince, Salman, who is now 81, has signaled a clear break from a decades-old tradition of building consensus among the leading sons of the Saudi state’s founder, the late King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.

In structural terms, Saudi Arabia is no longer a power-sharing gerontocracy. It has returned to the absolute monarchy that it was under Ibn Saud himself. Power is concentrated entirely in the hands of the king, who has delegated most of it to his son, the new crown prince.

In practical terms, MBS’s rise will streamline decision-making, and mitigate the political risks that are inherent in any system of multiple, competing power centers. There is now absolute clarity on the questions of succession and where power lies. But while this new arrangement certainly has its advantages, it also has potential pitfalls, because far-reaching decisions could go unquestioned and unchallenged.

When Salman dies, MBS will become king, and will most likely rule Saudi Arabia for many decades, leaving his imprint on the country’s social, religious, and economic life. His rise to power – which started in 2009, when he became an adviser to his father, who was then governor of Riyadh Province – has been meteoric. But being named crown prince is his most impressive achievement to date. MBS has won a race to the throne that included hundreds of princes, most of whom are older and more experienced – and all of whom feel entitled to rule.

To be sure, the king’s favoritism clearly gave MBS a leg up; but that alone does not explain his success. MBS had to rely on his wit, guile, and force of personality to consolidate power and assert his authority over key sectors of Saudi society. These include the royal family itself; the bureaucracy and technocratic elites; the media and intelligentsia; the massive national oil company, Saudi Aramco; and the religious establishment and its various institutions.

Moreover, MBS managed all of this while still formally adhering to the Saudi royal family’s strict protocols and elaborate codes of hierarchy. This helps to explain why the transition from one crown prince to another appeared to go so smoothly. In a widely distributed video clip, MBS can be seen falling to his knees to kiss the just-dismissed incumbent crown prince’s hand. But it is Nayif who formally offers his allegiance to MBS, leaving no doubt about where power lies.

MBS’s second great achievement has been in foreign policy, where he has been able to prove his capabilities to his father. MBS took the initiative to reach out to US President Donald Trump and his team immediately after the US presidential election in November 2016, and his efforts paid off, culminating in Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May 2017.

Trump’s visit was a major victory for Saudi Arabia. US-Saudi relations had reached a nadir during former US President Barack Obama’s tenure, but they have now been reset. During his visit, Trump emphasized the importance of the US-Saudi strategic relationship, offered his full support in Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran for regional primacy, and signed various business and investment deals worth many billions of dollars.

MBS, who is nothing if not ambitious, has set two broad goals for Saudi Arabia. The first, which he outlines in a program called Vision 2030, is to diversify the Saudi economy, by reducing its heavy dependence on oil revenues, and creating good jobs outside of the oil sector. MBS is convinced that Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves will be far less valuable in the future, owing to the rise of alternative fuels and renewable-energy technologies.

Under Vision 2030, MBS will try to monetize the upfront value of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves as much as possible. These proceeds will then be allocated to developing the country’s non-oil sectors, and invested in offshore assets to offset the inevitable loss in oil revenues. To that end, MBS is keen on privatizing part of Saudi Aramco through an initial public offering in 2018.

MBS’s second major goal is to turn Saudi Arabia into a regional military hegemon that can stand up to external threats, not least Iran. To do this, he will have to make his country far less dependent on US military protection, on which it has relied since 1945.

It will take a decade or more to accomplish each of the new crown prince’s goals. But now that MBS’s power base is finally secure, he seems to have every intention of carrying them out.