When the new Saudi king installed his own team, the most eye-catching appointments involved two princes young enough to be steering the world’s biggest oil exporter for decades to come.
One is a familiar figure to Saudi Arabia’s global allies. Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, heads a new security council and was made deputy crown prince, putting him in line to become the first king from his generation of royals. He’s leading a large Saudi delegation on a trip to the U.K. this week. The other is less well known outside of Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman, King Salman’s son, takes charge of an economic council in addition to posts as defense minister and gatekeeper to the royal court.
It’s an accelerated rise to power by the standards of the House of Saud, whose latest ruler inherited the throne in a time of turmoil. Saudi Arabia is battling to preserve an embattled ally in Yemen, turn the tide of Syria’s civil war, and fend off threats from Islamic State. An oil slump has left the kingdom, which has boosted spending to ward off political unrest, facing its first budget deficits in years.
While Mohammed bin Nayef’s appointment wasn’t unexpected, Mohammed bin Salman “did surprise many, due to his youth and relative inexperience,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc., a consultancy in Vienna, Virginia. “Bestowing that many responsibilities on him at such a young age is a clear indication of the trust that King Salman has in his son.”
In the oil-rich and secretive kingdom, there has always been speculation about the succession. It intensified when King Abdullah was admitted to a Riyadh hospital in December with pneumonia, and persisted right up to his death the next month.
Salman was immediately named his successor, and moved swiftly to dispel any remaining uncertainty. Even before Abdullah was buried, Salman named his half-brother Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the youngest son of the kingdom’s founder Ibn Saud, as crown prince and heir, with Mohammed bin Nayef as his deputy.
A week later came more signals about who’s in and out of favor. Salman’s overhaul went beyond cabinet changes. He created the two new councils to oversee the economy and security, making their heads, the two Prince Mohammeds, ostensibly the most powerful men in Salman’s government.
Mohammed bin Salman’s age hasn’t been disclosed, and the Saudi embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for information. News reports and analyst estimates put him in his early 30s.
Salman also removed two of Abdullah’s sons from their positions as governors of Riyadh and Mecca, and dissolved the National Security Council, which was run by Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the U.S.
The moves raised questions among some longtime Saudi-watchers.
Politics at the royal court involves “distributing power and spoils among the different factions,” and there’s always a chance that it flows “disproportionately to whatever faction has the throne,” said Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington and former U.S. intelligence officer for the Middle East. “Salman may have nudged things somewhat” in that direction, he said.
Before gaining his three new jobs, Mohammed bin Salman wasn’t well known outside Saudi Arabia, according to an Arab diplomat who declined to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media. Diplomats are watching how the prince manages his senior roles and conducts himself in meetings with senior military officials, he said.
For some Saudi allies, that opportunity to meet Prince Mohammed bin Salman came in Riyadh last week when military officials from nations joining the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State met to assess its progress.
Mohammed bin Salman’s previous experience of government involved running his father’s court when he was crown prince and defense minister, according to the website of the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Now, he heads a council that includes Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi and Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf. The new body has already highlighted the need to diversify the economy and assess changes in the energy market, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
“Mohammed bin Salman has been given a portfolio of great power,” Chas Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said. “He is young and has many years to grow into his role. In the meantime, his power derives entirely from his father, for whom he acts and whose confidence he clearly enjoys.”
It’s not unprecedented for princes to be given senior roles while relatively young. What’s unusual is the concentration of power in the hands of Mohammed bin Salman, said Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University, and a specialist in Saudi politics.
Since King Faisal came to the throne in the 1960s, “there has always been a sense of corporate leadership at the top, shared power and responsibility,” Gause said by e-mail. “This concentration of power seems to go against that. It raises questions. I don’t know anything about Mohammad bin Salman, so I do wonder if he is spreading himself too thin and has the political skills to manage three really important jobs.”
King Salman may further consolidate the power of his branch of the family by appointing another son, Abdulaziz, as the next oil minister to replace Ali al-Naimi, said Crispin Hawes, managing director of research firm Teneo Intelligence in London. Abdulaziz is currently the deputy oil minister, and Naimi has held the post for two decades.
‘Allowed to Retire’
“The king wasn’t going to remove Naimi on the same day he walked in,” Hawes said. “I wonder if at some point in the next six to eight months Naimi will be allowed to retire, and Abdulaziz will replace him.”
The rise of Salman’s sons isn’t guaranteed to last. The king is 79 and Muqrin, who’s in line to succeed him, “can make some changes in a different direction as quickly as Salman has made changes,” Pillar said. “Mohammed bin Salman’s time in the spotlight might not endure beyond his father’s reign.”
Mohammed bin Nayef, often referred to as MBN in the kingdom, is on solider ground. He’s the first Saudi official to supervise the internal and the external security services. He’s known to delegate responsibility to his staff, and to have a picture on the wall next to his office of every interior ministry personnel killed in the line of duty.
The older Prince Mohammed’s rise began during Abdullah’s last years, when the former monarch sought to promote a younger generation of princes. This week, he’s heading a delegation containing at least four other ministers on a trip to London, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, and is set to meet U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday.
Two of the prince’s closest advisers have advanced with him. Khalid al-Humaidan has been made head of general intelligence, and Saad al-Jabri is a minister without portfolio and a member of the political and security affairs council.
Both men work regularly with regional and international partners, especially the so-called Five Eyes -- an intelligence-sharing group comprised of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They’ve collaborated against jihadist threats from al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef “has government experience and experience dealing with international partners.” Gause said. “He seems to be a good candidate to be the first king from his generation.”