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Analysis: Who is Mohammad bin Salman and why is his appointment so significant?

Becca Noy explains why King Salman’s decision to name his 31-year-old son his heir is making so much noise throughout the world. Among other things, she states that Mohammad bin Salman is considerably younger than any other heir in history and thus has the potential to rule and shape the Kingdom for decades.
Mohammad bin Salman Photo Credit: EPA

Breaking news came out of Saudi Arabia this morning, making headlines in news outlets around the world. In an unprecedented, but somewhat expected by experts, move, King Salman ousted Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, stripping him of his title of crown prince. In his place, the frail king named his son, Mohammad bin Salman.

This development is seen as groundbreaking in the Saudi ruling family dynamic for several reasons. But, first, who is Mohammad bin Salman?

Prior to his father’s ascent to the throne, Mohammad bin Salman was not well known in Saudi Arabia and abroad. He received his bachelor’s degree in law from King Saud University. Eventually, he became a personal aide to his father and began working within the Saudi family business of leading the country.

Since 2015, he has been Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, a position he will keep even after being named crown prince and deputy prime minister. He is the youngest defense minister in the world, an appointment that took many by surprise. In this position, he has made international headlines for several reasons such as the decision to launch Operation Decisive Storm, Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the bloody crisis in Yemen, which has been the center of international criticism since its beginning.

In addition, he is the architect and voice behind the country’s Vision 2030 plan, which includes social and economic reforms that aim to reshape the Kingdom's economy and become less dependent on oil revenue. His plan is to drastically diversify the economy by such initiatives as increasing tourism (including non-Muslim tourism) and establishing a major Saudi Arabian arms industry. In light of his rapid rise in power since his father’s ascension to the throne, foreign diplomats have nicknamed him “Mr. Everything.”

When King Salman dies, his son will take the throne

Founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, commonly known as Ibn Saud, ruled the Kingdom from 1932 until his death in 1953. He proclaimed that his successor, and the successors after him, would be his sons. Therefore, the rule of power has gone from brother to brother since 1964, when King Saud, Ibn Saud’s eldest son, was deposed by his half-brother.

The appointment of Mohammad bin Salman as crown prince, just like the appointment of Muhammad bin Nayef Salman as crown prince, demonstrates the move to the third generation of Ibn Saud. However, the recent appointment could potentially signal a change in the succession dynamic within the House of Saud as the transfer of power will suddenly go from father to son for the first time since 1953.

Mohammad bin Salman is young

As opposed to 57-year-old Muhammad bin Nayef Salman, Mohammad bin Salman is only 31. When he is eventually crowned king, he will most likely rule the country for a considerable number of years. Previously, the longest ruling leader Saudi Arabia has known was King Fahd, who ruled for 23 years. However, King Fahd’s health deteriorated in 1995, less than a decade after he ascended the throne, when he suffered a serious stroke. Due to his poor health, Crown Prince Abdullah assumed many of the ruling responsibilities even prior to ascending the throne prior to 2005.

If he ends up ruling for several decades, Mohammad bin Salman will certainly significantly shape the face of the Kingdom. As defense minister and the brains behind the 2030 Vision initiative, he has already implemented unprecedented policies, made changes and proposed serious reforms.

King Salman and Mohammad bin Nayef Photo Credit: EPA

He’s popular with young Saudis but a controversial figure within the Saudi ruling family

Mohammad bin Salman is highly praised by young Saudis, who are used to elder rulers. The 31-year-old is seen as a new hope by the Saudi young people as many think that he can bring effective changes to Saudi society. Moreover, when Mohammad bin Salman takes the throne, his Vision 2030 plan, which is very popular among the young Saudis, will gain even more momentum.

However, his popularity within the Saudi ruling family is a different story. He has come under fire from other members of the family before due to his controversial reforms and military operations. In 2015, shortly after his father’s rise to leadership, a senior member of the family called for a coup in order to replace King Salman. This family member called for this action in two letters that he posted online. The letters were read by millions of people within the Kingdom.

Every family, especially if it is as large and complex as the Saudi royal family, has and is expected to have its share of problems. However, this was the first time that a Saudi royal family member ever decided to air the dirty laundry in public.

At the heart of his letters was the claim that King Salman is too weak to rule and the one who is really ruling the country is none other than Mohammad bin Salman. The senior family member said that his views are shared by other members of the royal family.

However, nothing publicly came of this scandal, and today, Saudi state media is reporting unanimity within the ruling family in support of King Salman’s royal decree.

JOL Blogger | Becca Noy

Becca is currently completing her B.A in Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University and a member of the StandWithUs Israel Fellowship 2016. She served as an operations officer in the IDF's Givati Brigade.

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