Mohammed bin Salman, 31, was appointed crown prince by his father King Salman on Wednesday, replacing his cousin who is 26 years his senior. This made the prince, who already oversaw defense and energy policy, the most powerful figure in the country by some stretch after the octogenarian monarch.
Already more than a few have mentioned Mohammed bin Salman’s hawkish anti-Iran policies and his bold economic vision. But there’s more to the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia than that. He may be dynamic, comparatively worldly, and supposedly forward thinking, but the odds are we just met the last king of Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed bin Salman is the first senior Saudi leader who was born after oil in 1981. That’s critical to understanding his worldview. Unlike the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, who can claim to have been born in a mud fort in Al Ain, Mohammad bin Salman does not know the hardships of Bedouin travel, nor the shortages of pre-oil life. It doesn’t necessarily make him spoiled; what it makes him is less aware of the fragility of Saudi rule, and therefore less cautious.
In 1973, King Faisal could blithely tell Henry Kissinger that he and his fellow citizens would have no problem returning to the desert should the U.S. invade. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has no such backing. His people are no longer desert nomads, but complicated, and squabbling, subjects unsure of their place as citizens in a Kingdom designed by 18th century thinkers. Yet the new crown prince may not fully be aware of that; a life of palatial upbringing tends to isolate one from their fellow man.
He has the potential to be more in touch with today’s young Saudis, the bulk of the population. At the same time, however, his birth in the safety of palaces and air conditioning means he’s almost certainly spent far less time around ordinary Saudis than any senior leader in the Kingdom’s history. While King Salman is old enough to have known the local council, or majlis, as a meeting place where real decisions happened underneath sun-scorched tents, Mohammed bin Salman knows them mostly as photo ops, ceremonial niceties he adheres to for tradition’s sake, while making the real decisions in ministries and offices amongst the walled-off Saudi elite.
In his youth, Mohammed bin Salman saw Saudi Arabia absurdly become a major wheat exporter from 1986-94, then promptly abandon the project when its costs far outweighed its benefits, giving up altogether in 2015. Did he learn that money cannot buy everything, or did he learn that when one has cash in the bank, you can indulge any whim you want? His behavior in Yemen, his goals on Vision 2030, suggest the later.
He was a kid when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, his Gulf neighbor, and prompted the Americans to rise to the rescue in an awesome display of superpower might. He was older – in his early 20s – when America then deposed Saddam in a breathlessly quick military campaign. It goes without saying that he knows when America puts its mind to something in the Middle East, much can happen. By the way he schmoozed Donald Trump, he knows the perils of losing the Americans.
Of course, he saw the insurgency, the al-Qaeda rising in the Kingdom itself, the dissolution of Syria, the rise of the Islamic State, the Iranian nuclear program, the collapse of Yemen and Libya and the cracking of Iraq, and he knows that in the Middle East no state is assured, no leader is safe, especially as the Arab Spring proved just how fickle the mighty Americans truly are, letting their close ally Hosni Mubarak twist in the populist wind. That great leaders can fall quickly in the Arab world is surely not lost on him.
He studied at Syracuse University in upstate New York, a dismal post-industrial town surviving mostly by the university’s prowess, and in that perhaps he saw Saudi Arabia’s own future, with abandoned oil derricks littering the Eastern Province as forlorn factories dot the Erie Canal. Surely he knew that America, with its vast geographic diversity and resource base, could take that hit and survive. Surely he knew that his own Kingdom could not.
And so he has led the scramble for the Next Big Saudi Thing, the Vision 2030, in desperate hopes that there is a life after oil, a nation hidden inside the Kingdom, a political pulse for the Saudi royal family beyond the generation of his father, King Salman. In the war in Yemen he is hoping to not only forestall Iranian influence but to forge a generation of Saudi citizens, through blood and battle and victory, transforming them from disparate tribes into a nation, much as America’s War of 1812, failure though it was, gave a clean break with its British past.
He is testing the waters of modernity, knowing that Sunni supremacists hunger for his head, waiting for him to antagonize the wrong sort, by offering jobs to women and publicly talking about how Saudis simply aren’t ready for women drivers. That’s an important distinction, for in it Mohammed bin Salman is shifting the blame from his royal authority onto the subjects he rules. “I would, but they’d be so angry at me,” he points, and hopes they will get the message to change their minds without risk to him. He knows, of course, that women drivers are in and of themselves harmless, unless they become ideological fodder for the head choppers now fleeing the crumbling Islamic State caliphate.
And he worries most of all about his American friends, who he must know from his time in upstate New York do not think very long term. Now they have elected the most short-sighted president in a long time, one who responds to Gulf Arab flattery but who does not understand much about the complexities of the region. He hopes to exploit this to crush his Qatari rivals, the al-Thanis who dare to rock the geopolitical boat of the Gulf states through al-Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood and a competing economic model to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. That last part helps propel his alliance with Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Yet he knows that Trump will not be forever, and should things go well Mohammed bin Salman could be king for decades, through a half dozen presidents. Will they keep pulling away, especially when clean energy cuts Saudi oil prices far below the budgetary needs of the Kingdom? Surely that keeps him up at night.
He is an odd place in the generation of Saudis, the son of a second generation leader, born in a time of third generation dynamics. The great Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun would bet against his success: the third generation is the least capable in a dynasty. They break the traditions that work and blaze trails haphazardly, seeking to revitalize stale dynasties through dramatics.
Perhaps the seeds of the monarchy’s fall have been planted by Mohammed bin Salman in Yemen, where his army may bleed out and his military legitimacy might be shattered. Or perhaps it is in little Qatar, which may become a Turkish or Iranian proxy when both are almost certain to be dominate the Middle East. Maybe it’s in the ever-staler oil prices of the New York stock exchange, where shale oil has blunted the Kingdom’s energy weapon. Or maybe it’s on Twitter or 4chan or Reddit, where Saudi citizens connect and engage and realize their state is coming up short, and where complaints are becoming plots and plots are becoming movements.
States that reform economically but not politically or socially don’t have great track records. Even mighty China wobbles, and Saudi Arabia has none of the civilizational depth of China. Should its foundations crack, there are more than a few countries that could emerge, from a Shi’a Islamic Republic of Qatif in the east to a Constitutional Kingdom of the Hejaz in the west to an Islamic State successor in the Nejd.
And the smart bets are on are a cracking of those foundations. Perhaps something within Saudi’s borders will emerge, but it will almost surely not be headed by a Saudi. Meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, perhaps the last king of Saudi Arabia.