The Fresh Prince of Arabia

Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Council / Handout / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud during his official visit to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

On June 21st, Saudi King Salman named his son, Mohammed bin Salman (Prince Mohammed), Crown Prince, replacing the King’s nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef.

Prince Mohammed, the eldest son of King Salman’s third wife, age 32, is the youngest Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia’s eighty-five-year history. In the four years since his father became King, Prince Mohammed went from a relatively unknown Saudi royal, to defense minister in 2015, to Crown Prince just two years later.

This change in succession comes at a tumultuous time for Saudi Arabia, whose G.D.P. had negative growth for the first time since 2011. The economic downturn has primarily been the result of the decreased price of crude oil, which accounts for 46% of the Kingdom’s G.D.P.  

Prince Mohammed has been adamant about the need to diversify the economy away from oil. A key tenet of Prince Mohammed’s economic agenda, known as Vision 2030, has been the privatization of state companies. He has proposed that Saudi Arabia privatize their healthcare, educational, and military industries. In a statement, Prince Mohammed said that privatization would “decrease some of the pressure that the government has” to fund these expensive programs. Most notably, the Crown Prince was the lead supporter for an I.P.O. of the state-oil company, Aramco, which will raise nearly $100 billion for the Kingdom.  

Prince Mohammed has also imposed stiff austerity measures, reducing Saudi Arabia’s deficit by 51%, by implementing a hiring freeze and rolling back government subsidies. The Crown Prince, however, hasn’t been afraid to invest in ambitious projects, recently announcing the construction of a $500 billion megacity—expected to be 33 times larger than New York City—known as Neom. Prince Mohammed has stated that the creation of Neom will not only benefit Saudi Arabia, but also the world.

Alongside economic reform, Prince Mohammed has been pushing for social change and recently the Kingdom lifted the ban on women driving. This reversal is the latest step in the Crown Prince’s plan to move Saudi Arabia away from fundamentalist Wahhabism to a more moderate brand of Islam.

Prince Mohammed has also been crucial in strengthening Saudi Arabia’s ties with the U.S., recently signing a $350 billion defense deal with the Trump Administration. President Trump and Prince Mohammed have both looked to strengthen relations between their respective countries, meeting on several occasions to discuss anti-terrorism operations in the Gulf region.

In recent months, Prince Mohammed has become increasingly outspoken about his views on Iran. In an MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center) interview, Prince Mohammed said, “a believer is not bitten from the same hole twice. We were bitten once [current Yemen Civil War]. We will not be bitten again. We know we are a major target for the Iranian regime...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.”

Prince Mohammed’s hawkish views on Iran can be traced back to his time as defense minister, where he initiated Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen. The proxy war between Iran backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition has resulted in the death of 50,000 Yemeni and the displacement 1.8 million people. As gains on both sides have stalled and civilian casualties mounting, Prince Mohammed has continued to ramp up his combative rhetoric.

With Saudi Arabia’s intervention failing to counter the Houthi rebels, many political analysts doubt whether Prince Mohammed will continue the costly Yemen operation. Support from the Trump Administration, however, could embolden Prince Mohammed to expand the military intervention.

Although it is too early to predict how exactly Prince Mohammed will change Saudi Arabia as future King, his appointment as Crown Prince represents a drastic shift in Saudi politics.  His promise for reform, however limited, is revolutionary in a nation known for its traditionalism.

Prince Mohammed’s role as Crown Prince has just begun but he is enthusiastic about his nation’s future declaring that “changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world.”