After months of speculation and palace intrigue, Saudi King Salman shook up the kingdom's line of succession on June 21 by naming his powerful son, Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and removing all titles from Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince. This is the second time Salman has overhauled the line of succession and the Saudi government since taking the throne in January 2015. The move is a controversial one, considering it cuts large and powerful segments of the royal family out of the succession plan. And should the young bin Salman ascend the throne, it could mean Saudi Arabia will be ruled for six decades by father and son.
Today's announcement has several important implications. But none is as important as the amount of trust being placed in bin Salman, who has already amassed enough power to be dubbed "Mr. Everything" by some Western governments. As bin Salman has concentrated his power, bin Nayef has been increasingly sidelined. Today's reshuffle will only remove him from power even further, ousting him from his position at the head of the Interior Ministry and from all other leadership roles.
The Next King
If bin Salman becomes king, he will be the youngest Saudi ruler in modern history, able to potentially preside over decades of policy and reform in the kingdom. The crown prince is known for spearheading the country's economic reform, an agenda he will likely continue to push, and he may well turn his attention to effecting social change as well.
Perhaps more important, bin Salman has a vested interest in trying to solve Saudi Arabia's long-term economic and social challenges, including its overreliance on the oil sector and growing calls for more social liberties. Unlike Saudi leaders who have come before him attempting reform, he doesn't have the luxury of kicking the can down the road; any procrastination would create problems that are his to fix later on.
The Price of Reform
Still, change will come at a price. Any effort to push the boundaries of social reform in the kingdom risks ruffling the feathers of the conservative clerical establishment, which many in the royal family view as the foundation of the House of Saud's legitimacy and support. Many Saudis are firm believers in the conservative social fabric of the country and could resent swift adjustments to social strictures. As a result, any reform must be undertaken carefully while gauging pushback from the public.
In fact, bin Salman already has had to retract some of his suggestions for remedying Saudi Arabia's economic ills: In April, the king reinstated public sector bonuses, seven months after they were eliminated to improve the budget deficit. Popular resistance also prompted Salman to replace the water and electricity minister in April of last year when Saudis protested higher utility prices on Twitter.
Just because bin Salman is now closer to the throne doesn't mean he will have an easier time pushing through his reforms. If the reshuffle has upset other members of the House of Saud — particularly third-generation descendants of King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud who have been completely shut out of the line of succession — they will find ways to hamper the crown prince.
Nevertheless, bin Salman has made a name for himself at home and abroad. Not only has he been instrumental in leading the economic reform called for under the Vision 2030 platform, but he also has made his mark on Saudi Arabia's foreign policy and regional defense strategy in his position as the country's defense minister. He has been particularly instrumental to the kingdom's intervention in Yemen and to its increasingly aggressive stance toward Iran. (Last month he promised to move the fight against Tehran inside Iranian borders.)
Bin Salman has also worked hard to build a close relationship with the United States. But bin Nayef's unseating removes a known partner to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Bin Salman has skillfully portrayed himself as someone who is fully aligned with the United States in fighting terrorism, but he lacks the decade of experience that bin Nayef accumulated in his campaign against al Qaeda. Moreover, Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen, which was one of the first moves bin Salman made as defense minister, has proved costly and has become less and less popular. Bin Salman still faces the risk of blowback on that front.
With a long-term vision for reform, bin Salman has quickly risen within the halls of power. In doing so, he joins the ranks of other Gulf Cooperation Council leaders such as his new counterpart, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. But Saudi Arabia's economic and social issues are far more difficult than those facing the United Arab Emirates, where Al Nahyan's role is secure and well established. So although bin Salman is currently next in line for the throne, whether or not he actually becomes king will depend on how well he navigates the challenges of being crown prince — and how well he addresses the kingdom's problems with concrete action.