Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman waves.
(photo credit: BANDAR ALGALOUD/COURTESY OF SAUDI ROYAL COURT/REUTERS)
In a stunning palace reshuffle with implications for Israel, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has designated his son Muhammad Bin Salman as his successor, boosting his already formidable powers while ousting the previous crown prince, his nephew Muhammad Bin Nayef.
The Saudi Press Agency reported that a royal decree also appointed 31-year-old Muhammad Bin Salman, who had been the deputy crown prince and will continue to serve as the defense minister and oil minister, to the additional post of deputy prime minister, while stripping Muhammad Bin Nayef, 57, of his post as interior minister. Thirty-one of the 34 members in Saudi Arabia’s Allegiance Council, which is made up of leading figures of the ruling Saud family, backed the changes.
The new crown prince is ultra-hawkish on Iran and favors an activist policy to check what he sees as Iranian efforts to expand at Saudi Arabia’s expense. He says Iran has designs on Mecca.
“We will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia, but we will work so the battle is there, in Iran, and not in Saudi Arabia,” he said during an interview with the Saudi Al-Arabiya television last month. The youthful future king, who is seen as impulsive by critics but decisive by supporters, is the driving force behind Saudi Arabia’s controversial and costly intervention in Yemen that is aimed at halting Iranian-backed Houthi fighters.
Saudi kingdom's 'Game of Thrones'
“He’s the architect of a series of steps bringing Saudi Arabia to be of one mind with Israel,” said Joshua Teitelbaum, a Saudi specialist at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
“This involves confrontation with Iran or stopping Iranian influence, be it in Lebanon, Iraq or Yemen. Israel has a large stake in the Yemen operation because it cannot afford to have a pro-Iranian force in control of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which is the exit for Israeli shipping from the Gulf of Eilat; so Israel and Saudi Arabia see eye to eye on this. In terms of Israel, he’s the son of a king who has continued a policy of limited, clandestine cooperation with Israel, and there is no reason to expect the son to go in a different direction.”
In domestic terms, Muhammad Bin Salman is best known for his efforts to reduce the Saudi economy’s dependence on oil revenues.
“He is radical in trying to make fundamental changes to the way the economy operates so as to enable the country to deal with the financial challenge of lower oil prices and long-term likely decline in oil revenues,” said David Butter, a Saudi specialist at London’s Chatham House think tank.
Butter gave the new crown prince a “mixed scorecard” for the last few years, during which he has wielded considerable power.
“He gets high marks in terms of ambition and comprehensiveness of the approach. But the doubts creep in, in terms of governance issues that are partly about him and partly about the whole Saudi system. It’s very much governing by ambush, presenting new policies as faits accomplis with very little debate. That’s just the way they do things.”
The main significance of Wednesday’s reshuffle, according to Teitelbaum, is “that the king is 82 and wants to put his son in power and avoid a power struggle with Muhammad Bin Nayef. Muhammad Bin Salman could rule for 50 years. It’s a huge move towards stability and taking away questions over who is going to rule.”
During the Al-Arabiya interview, Muhammad Bin Salman ruled out dialogue with Iran and cast the confrontation with it as a religious struggle impelled by what he said are Iranian Twelver Shi’ite attempts to catalyze a return of the Hidden Imam, or Mahdi, who will be free of error or sin and whose function will be to interpret Islam to men. Almost all of Iranian Shi’as are members of the Twelvers branch.
“How do you communicate with someone or a regime that’s completely convinced that its system is based on an extremist ideology, that relies on texts in its constitution and in Khomeini’s legacy, and that stipulates that it must control Muslims in the Islamic world and spread the Twelver Jaafari sect in the Islamic world so that Imam Mahdi comes?” he asked. “How do I convince these [people] of anything? What interests are there between me and them?
“With Iran, how do we communicate? Their logic is based on the notion that Imam Mahdi will come and that they must prepare the fertile environment for his arrival and they must control the Muslim world.... The mutual points which we can agree on with this regime are almost nonexistent. This regime was tested during more than one phase, like during the time of Rafsanjani, and everything turned out to be mere charades,” Bin Salman continued, referring to Hashemi Rafsanjani, the president of Iran from 1989 until 1997.
“We know we are a major target for the Iranian regime,” he added. “Reaching the Muslims’ qibla is a major aim for the Iranian regime,” he alleged, referring to Mecca, the direction toward which Muslims face in prayer.