Change and Continuity in the House of Saud

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

July 7, 2017

In an abrupt, but not wholly unexpected move, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz announced last week that his 31-year old son, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, has been appointed as the new Crown Prince, replacing Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The appointment of the new crown prince is particularly noteworthy, considering his young age as well as his well-publicized vision for restructuring the Saudi economy. Prince Mohammad’s ascension to the position of Crown Prince is likely to bring with it important changes, both economically and geo-politically.


News of the “royal reshuffle” has been generally well received in the region. In an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Salman Al-dossary characterized the appointment of the new crown prince as a bold move, but very much in keeping with tradition and royal prerogative:  “By appointing a new crown prince in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, the Kingdom has sent a strong message for the world countries confirming its stability and capability of moving forward in the same moderate approach. It also proved that a country of the size of Saudi Arabia, the value of its economy and the wide range of its relations and alliances will always stay stable and secured, as it always has been, and in trustworthy leadership. Its rulers change, yet its compass never deviates. It moves steadily in an area full of chaos, it is Saudi Arabia….Saudis have been accustomed since the establishment of this state 300 years ago to their monarchy system, which stipulates that the king is the one who chooses his crown prince. This mechanism continued even after the establishment of the third Saudi state by King Abdul Aziz.”

The Khaleej Times editorial staff expressed in a recent editorial that, while firmly rooted in tradition, the decision of the Saudi monarch signaled the determination of the ruling family to give the country a clearer path on which to build for the future: “The way forward is to overhaul the Saudi economy and diversify it, and along the way create more job opportunities-as many as five million by some accounts-and renew economic growth. He has also proposed unlocking value in Saudi Aramco, which will lead to the world’s biggest listing on capital markets. He has talked about cutting subsidies on oil, water and electricity, and also setting up a sovereign wealth fund to make investments abroad….With young Prince Mohammed next in line for the throne, Saudi Arabia can set a policy for decades. The hard-working leader offers a hopeful vision for the kingdom’s future, especially for its large youth population who will hopefully see their aspirations addressed.”

Considering the new crown prince’s leadership role in putting forward a bold economic vision, it is not surprising that some observers, including Al Arabiya’s Abdulrahman al-Rashed, have focused much of their attention on the impact that such reforms will have in the country and the region: “Observers can see that Saudi Arabia is changing rapidly, and this calls on the governing administration to keep up with what’s expected from it. Change, however, must not be at the expense of stability….What distinguishes this choice and makes it a new development is that considering his age and experience in the modern government administration, he provides the vitality, which Saudi Arabia needs in its modernizing projects launched under his direct supervision….Saudi Arabia’s stability is important for the stability of the entire region and it is in the interest of all countries in the region, including countries that may disagree with Saudi policies, to derive strength from it. Chaos is contagious and it can spread but the same goes for stability.” 

The Jerusalem Post’s Amotz Asa-El doesn’t question the drive and the ambition that Prince Mohammad Bin Salman may have for his country’s quest for stability and growth, but expresses some skepticism about his ability to undertake the necessary reforms: “At stake is an absolute kingship that could span a good half century, presiding over a country whose role in shaping our region’s future will be decisive, for better or worse. If it’s up to the prince – an unorthodox, energetic and ambitious enemy of the status quo – it will be for the better. Reality, alas, might prove stronger, and sadder, than his good intentions and bright dreams…. Realizing the gravity of his country’s ailments, Muhammad unveiled last year a road map that shows he understands the problems better than some older people in his father’s court…. Yet a closer look at the plan brings to mind a heart patient refusing to undergo open-heart surgery…. Prince bin Salman, and with him the Arab world’s entire power structure, will rise or fall according to his willingness to empower the masses at the royal family’s expense.”

While much of the regional commentary was focused on the impact of the ascension of Prince Mohammad bin Salman, there were also expressions of appreciation for the transitional role played by former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, such as that by The National’s foreign desk reporter James Langton:  “At home, the prince has championed greater rights for women, opening up positions for them to work at the Saudi intelligence agency, the General Directorate of Intelligence, and telling a Bloomberg interviewer this April: ‘We support women for the future and I don’t think there are obstacles we can’t overcome’. For many observers, his appointment as crown prince was a message to the Saudi people; a reassurance of stability and continuity during a time of sweeping domestic reforms. If Prince Mohammed is not now destined to rule his people, he has at least smoothed the path for his successor.” 

Not surprisingly, Iranian commentators have offered a more mixed review of the recent change, as reflected in an op-ed in the Tehran Times by Mahmood Monshipouri:  “The removal of Mohammed bin Nayef has presented new uncertainty for the West. Nayef has been known in the West as a key Saudi security partner in a crackdown against al-Qaeda especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States…. Also uncertain is how far the new generation of young leaders in Riyadh will go to change the country’s welfare state economy by restructuring its oil-dependent economy in the wake of slump in oil prices and persistent ultra-conservative cultural pressures…. Perhaps most significantly of all, the prospect of a young prince—to become the king in not-too-distant future—with the potential to rule the country for decades has now become real.  Such an eventuality carries worrisome implications…. The control of the House of Saud by young and aggressive princes bodes ill for a country that is consumed by taking a hawkish stance toward Iran and yet at the same time claiming to lead the campaign against Sunni extremists, including Daesh.”

Not all share that view, though. In an op-ed for Gulf News, Sulaiman Al Hattlan is effusive in his praise for the new crown prince and believes that he is the right man to steer Saudi Arabia away from economic and geopolitical quick-sands: “The Saudi Vision 2030, adopted and managed by the young prince, promises Saudis of a major shift in their future. This vision will establish a different economic mentality than the Rentier state that prevailed during the past 60 years in Saudi society….Having a young man who realizes the concerns of young people and who is close to their way of thinking in a top position in Saudi decision-making, will reflect positively on the Saudi economy and its relations with the world…It is in the interest of Saudi Arabia and the world that a young energetic man who has big innovative ideas will lead his country towards the future with confidence and openness. It is also in the interest of Washington to support this positive direction, not only to confront Islamist extremism in the Middle East and the world, but also to promote lasting peace in the Middle East.” 

But as a report written by Arab News’s Wael Mahdi implies, while it may be difficult or nearly impossible to accurately predict what the next few years hold in store for Saudi Arabia and the region, in the short term the markets have already begun taking note of Prince Mohammad’s views on the economy and regional security: “The promotion of Prince Mohammed bin Salman comes at a time when all the financial gauges for oil are bearish, and many hedge funds and speculators are cutting their bullish bets on prices. As soon as the news of his promotion came out, many analysts turned bullish and started to talk about the return of geopolitical risks to the oil markets. This in part has to do with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s stance on Iran and Qatar, two neighboring oil-producing countries that also happen to be fellow members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)…. Speculators do not seem to worry much over adding a few dollars of risk premium to prices. However, it is highly important to understand how Crown Prince Mohammed will reshape the global energy market. The crown prince is on a mission to end his country’s dependence on oil as the main source of state revenues. Yet this does not mean he does not need oil.” 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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