Women’s rights and ties with Israel likely to improve after “soft coup” in Riyadh

June 23, 2017

Donald Trump and Mohammed bin Salman at the White House in March.



1. Iran calls elevation of Crown Prince a “Soft Coup”
2. “Take the battle to Iran”
3. “Profound implications inside and outside the Middle East”
4. New York Times: Trump and Kushner edge their man in
5. “Fear is what changed Saudi Arabia”
6. El Al to fly over Saudi airspace?
7. “The Saudi shake-up has one goal: Drag the country into modern era” (Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2017)
8. “Trump’s preferred candidate wins again, this time in Saudi Arabia” (New York Times, June 22, 2017)
9. “This is not your father’s Saudi Arabia” (Op-ed, Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2017)
10. “Change in the House of Saud” (Wall Street Journal editorial, June 22, 2017)



[Notes by Tom Gross]

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, 81, named his young 31-year-old son Mohammed bin Salman as his crown prince and successor. Mohammed bin Salman (known as MbS) is reformist, ambitious and pro-American yet also confrontational, particularly towards Iran and Qatar.

King Salman’s move appears to be a bid to overhaul the kingdom, which is beset with economic, security and societal problems. Some western commentators are calling the move a virtual revolution that will also improve women’s rights and ties with Israel.

Iranian state media described the appointment of Mohammed Bin Salman as successor to the ageing King Salman a “soft coup”.

In the past in Saudi Arabia brother had succeed brother -- all of them sons of the country’s founder, Ibn Saud who died in 1953.

Salman’s own state of health is unclear. He uses a cane and sits in front of a computer to remind him of his talking points when meeting dignitaries.



The move has unnerved Iran’s leadership. Last month, Prince Mohammed said that the “battle” should be taken into Iran.

Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are competing for power and influence across the region and beyond, and support opposite sides in the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

Iran and its proxy militias have done much of the killing and ethnic cleansing in Syria these past six years, and the Saudis and their allies much of the killing in Yemen.

Barack Obama in effect sided with the Islamic Iranian regime whereas Donald Trump appears to be taking the Saudi side.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei labeled the Saudi leadership “idiots” in a speech last month.



Saudi Arabia has mounting economic problems. There is an unemployment rate over 28% for people aged between 20 and 29. 45% of the Saudi population of 32 million is aged under 25. Mohammed bin Salman has said he wants to increase the number of women in the workplace, which may be a key step to economic growth.

Below, I attach various articles about the “soft coup”.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, “the change of power has profound implications for Saudi Arabia’s political and economic future, for global oil markets and for allies inside and outside the Middle East… It empowers a largely untested prince who may become even more powerful than his father, as dissenting factions have been edged out and power is now consolidated in King Salman’s line… There hasn’t been such a powerful central player emerging since King Abdulaziz, who founded the kingdom.”



The New York Times writes: “Even more than Karen Handel, the Republican who won a hotly contested House seat in a special election in Georgia this week, Prince Mohammed was Mr. Trump’s anointed candidate – in this case, for the byzantine struggle to control the House of Saud.”

The Times adds: “The young prince is also a favorite of the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Mr. Kushner began cultivating Prince Mohammed soon after Mr. Trump’s election. When the prince visited Washington in March, he dined with Mr. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, at their home. When the couple joined Mr. Trump on his visit to Saudi Arabia last month, the prince hosted Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump for a dinner at his house…

“Mr. Kushner and Prince Mohammed, senior officials said, worked closely together to choreograph Mr. Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, which yielded a renewed commitment by dozens of Arab and Muslim leaders to combat extremism in their countries and to turn off the financial spigot to extremist groups.”



In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that was published on Tuesday before Mohammed bin Salman was made Crown prince, titled “Fear Is What Changed Saudi Arabia,” Walter Russell Mead writes:

“Saudi Arabia used to be one of the most cautious players in the world of diplomacy. Not anymore. In the past three weeks, the Saudis have launched a coordinated diplomatic offensive against neighboring Qatar, hinted at new ties with Israel, scolded Pakistan, turned up the heat in their confrontation with Iran, and carried on a war of words with Turkey. Meanwhile, they continue to bomb Yemen to support their local allies in that country’s increasingly bitter civil war.”



Tom Gross adds:

Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise has been meteoric.

Recently, together with the UAE, he has led the recent effort to isolate Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism.

In addition to fighting Sunni Islamist extremist groups such as Isis, Prince Mohammed has indicated he may move Saudi Arabia closer to Israel. Saudi Arabia still has no official relations with Israel but behind the scenes there are growing links. Several senior Saudis subscribe to this email list.

Last Saturday, The Times of London reported that Saudi Arabia and Israel are negotiating the establishment of economic ties, including allowing Israeli businesses to operate in the Gulf and letting Israel’s El Al airline fly over Saudi airspace.

As I predicted in a dispatch last month (In a first, Trump may fly directly from Saudi to Israel, May 19, 2017), Donald Trump would become the first person to publically fly from Saudi Arabia to Israel, and indeed he did do so a few days after that dispatch was published.

See also:

How Israel’s tech firms are quietly doing business in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (February 2, 2017)

I attach four articles below.



The Saudi Shake-Up Has One Goal: Drag the Country Into Modern Era
The elevation of Mohammed bin Salman is a bet he can pull off a radical financial and economic transformation

By Summer Said in Dubai, Justin Scheck in Riyadh and Michael Amon in London
The Wall Street Journal
June 22, 2017

When Salman bin Abdulaziz became Saudi Arabia’s king two years ago, the country’s leadership appeared little different from how it had been for decades. The ruler and his designated successor were two of the country founder’s dozens of sons, a fractious fraternity that passed along power in an unbroken chain of conservative rule.

No longer. Modernity has walloped Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most ossified societies, and today it is struggling to maintain the economic and political power it built on giant crude-oil reserves.

On Wednesday, King Salman, 81, named his ambitious and confrontational 31-year-old son Mohammed bin Salman as his crown prince and successor, in a bid to supercharge an attempt by the country – and the monarchy – to secure its future. The move caps an overhaul rare in Saudi history that has deposed two crown princes and marks the ascent of the youngest ruling generation the kingdom has seen.

The young prince is leading what amounts to a national turnaround effort, and his rapid ascent emphasizes the critical nature of that job.

Low oil prices and mounting demographic pressures are tearing at the kingdom’s fragile social contract, making change even more urgent and political unity at the top a greater priority. Mohammed bin Salman is spearheading a plan to take the state oil company public in 2018 in what could be the world’s biggest public offering and to invest proceeds in a fund to diversify the country’s economy.

The change of power has profound implications for Saudi Arabia’s political and economic future, for global oil markets and for allies inside and outside the Middle East. It casts into retirement the erstwhile crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, King Salman’s nephew and a longtime antiterror official who had close ties with U.S. diplomats. It empowers a largely untested prince who may become even more powerful than his father, as dissenting factions have been edged out and power is now consolidated in King Salman’s line.

“There hasn’t been such a powerful central player since King Abdulaziz,” said Steffen Hertog, a London School of Economics professor who studies Saudi Arabian politics. King Abdulaziz, the father of King Salman, founded the kingdom.

The Saudi royal family is increasingly squeezed by perceived threats in the Middle East, most of all the rise of its rival Iran after the end of Western sanctions linked to its nuclear program. Mohammed bin Salman is leading a costly war against Iranian-supported rebels in Yemen who toppled a Saudi-backed government and has inserted Saudi Arabia into the Syrian civil war, backing opponents of Iranian ally President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi Arabia has led a jarring diplomatic freeze-out of its onetime ally Qatar, over the tiny emirate’s budding ties to Iran.

The young prince’s overtaking of his older cousin has long been viewed as inevitable in some royal circles, according to people familiar with the matter. The timing of the move was cemented by the need to unify the kingdom’s leaders behind the economic overhaul and foreign-policy moves, according to one of the people.

“It is a highly calculated move to make Saudi Arabia as stable as possible,” the person said. “You need this clarity when you have a big ambitious reform plan you want to achieve.”

One catalyst for the timing of Wednesday’s shuffle: Mohammed bin Nayef’s stance on Qatar. According to two people familiar with the matter, he wanted to resolve the dispute through diplomatic channels, while Mohammed bin Salman wanted to take a harsher stance. Mohammed bin Salman won the argument, and, on June 5, Saudi Arabia announced an economic blockade of Qatar.

The succession overhaul that was announced by royal decree – hours after the dawn meal that precedes the daily fast in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – was expected by some, but the timing may have been accelerated by the Qatar issue, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.

In the aftermath of the dispute between Mohammed bin Salman and his cousin, Saudi Arabia’s Allegiance Council, which comprises 34 members of the royal family representing each lineage of Abdulaziz’s sons, met in Mecca this week, said a person familiar with the matter. The council advises the king on matters of succession, but its decisions aren’t binding. Its vote in favor of the leadership shuffle, however, showed there is a consensus within the family about Mohammed bin Salman’s promotion.

Indicating a belief that urgent action was necessary, 31 members voted to oust the crown prince and promote Mohammed bin Salman, this person said.

In Washington, a senior administration official said the Trump administration knew the change was likely but didn’t know this move would happen today. “Why now? What’s behind it? Nobody knows,” this person said.

Promoting a prince with a more aggressive line on foreign disputes is a change for the country. Its neighbors now see it taking “a much more assertive, insistent domineering” approach to foreign policy, said Chas Freeman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under President George H.W. Bush. “Some of the neighbors regard it as a drive for Saudi hegemony in the region,” he said.

The new heir apparent is likely to become the youngest ruler of Saudi Arabia since King Abdulaziz. He has taken a truculent approach to dealing with regional rivalries. In private meetings, he reminds visitors that his nation spends some $60 billion a year on weapons, giving him the “upper hand” over surrounding nations.

Mohammed bin Salman will face economic changes that have gained urgency with the oil-price rout. A drop to less than $45 a barrel, down over 60% since 2014, has ushered in a destabilizing period of austerity measures in a kingdom where oil money provided almost 80% of government revenue and underpinned a cozy lifestyle for the Saudi middle class.

The kingdom has a growing population of young people who can’t find good jobs, with an unemployment rate over 28% in 2016 for people aged between 20 and 29.

Domestically, Mohammed bin Salman has significant support within the swelling ranks of young, foreign-educated Saudis who want more economic opportunity and fewer social restrictions. Since the kingdom’s founding, the royal family’s alliance with religious hard-liners has kept in place severe strictures. Women aren’t allowed to drive and must get permission from relatives to travel abroad or marry.

Many young people want to lift such barriers, and Mohammed bin Salman has said he wants to increase the number of women in the workplace. In a country where 45% of the population of 32 million is under 25, that may be a key to economic growth.

“Mohammed bin Salman needs young people to help him succeed – and young people need him,” said Ahmed Al-Ibrahim, 40, a Saudi business consultant. “He is ambitious, he has a vision and he delivers. He will push for the separation of mosque and politics.”

Last year, the monarchy stripped the country’s religious police of its powers to arrest and instructed its members to behave kindly toward suspected offenders. In a country where cinemas are banned, there is now a government body with the task of promoting entertainment. Government officials often hint the country’s ban on women’s driving will soon be lifted.

Before his father became king in January of 2015, Mohammed bin Salman had a relatively low profile in Saudi Arabia. But he had spent years at his father’s side while the future king held a series of government positions.

Tall, youthful and bearish, Mohammed bin Salman punctuates his enthusiastic discourses on politics and power with a tic in which he extends his neck and lifts his chin.

Since rising in power, he has driven his underlings hard. “It’s always ‘right now,’ “ when he’s pushing an initiative, said one high-ranking official. The prince has demanded the IPO of Saudi Arabian Oil Co., or Saudi Aramco, happen quickly, said people familiar with the matter, and in the view of some officials, he rushed some economic reforms, leading to backlash among citizens.

After Salman became king in 2015 upon the death of his older brother Abdullah, another brother, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, was appointed crown prince. Mohammed bin Salman was appointed defense minister and chairman of the country’s Council for Economic and Development Affairs, putting him at the head of military and economic matters. The king’s young son monopolized the limelight, becoming the face of the kingdom’s ambitious economic overhauls and its war to oust Iranian proxies from Yemen.

Crown prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz resigned in April 2015, making room for Mohammed bin Nayef, a nephew of King Salman’s, to become crown prince, and Mohammed bin Salman to become deputy crown prince. That structure was a major shift, as for the first time it named a successor to the throne who would be of the younger generation. It was also the first time a sitting crown prince had been replaced.

But Mohammed bin Nayef was also quickly eclipsed by the young Mohammed bin Salman, who announced an economic-overhaul plan called Vision 2030 in 2016. To deal with the impact of low oil prices on the kingdom’s finances, he announced new austerity measures including cuts to public-employee salaries and reduced energy and water subsidies. The cuts were made even more necessary by the expensive war in Yemen against Houthi rebels.

As his cousin’s public profile rose, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef spent a long stretch of 2016 on vacation in remote Algeria, and, until September of last year, kept a relatively low profile even when in Riyadh, reinforcing the view that his power was waning.

Mohammed bin Salman’s profile meanwhile continued to rise. In January 2016, he announced he planned to take a minority stake in Saudi Aramco public. That plan raised concerns among some within the company about losing control of the source of most of Saudi Arabia’s income.

Consumers also griped about some of the subsidy cuts, and business owners had problems with overhaul measures including some designed to increase Saudi employment. Early this year, the prince met with 10 business leaders who complained that few Saudi companies grew last year, while many lost money.

Private sector growth was sluggish, they said, and suffered from declining purchasing power of consumers. They said rising fuel costs – the result of subsidy cuts – were hurting them, according to a meeting document the Journal reviewed.

Mohammed bin Salman also ran into political challenges with austerity measures aimed at curbing government spending. Late last year, he instituted cuts to government employees’ allowances and bonuses. They proved unpopular, and in April King Salman reversed them as part of a series of decrees that also put two of his other sons in elevated positions, including U.S. ambassador.

Known to be intrigued by Wall Street and eager to do deals abroad, he faces the challenge of pulling off the IPO of Saudi Aramco, a complex deal that he has said could value the company at $2 trillion – although inside the company, some officials said that is likely to be less than $1.5 trillion. Mohammed bin Salman has cultivated relationships with bankers and international business figures, seeking advice on how to bring investment into Saudi Arabia and looking for ways to invest the country’s money in industries other than oil.

The demands of the prince’s new job stand in stark contrast to the traditional court process that put him in the role. At their Mecca meeting, all but three of the members of the Allegiance Council endorsed the shuffle, according to one official familiar with the vote.

In a ceremony broadcast on Saudi television, Mohammed bin Nayef formally acceded to his younger cousin, saying, “I pledge allegiance to you. I am content.”

And he told his cousin, “God help you. Now I will rest, and you, God help you.”



Trump’s Preferred Candidate Wins Again, This Time in Saudi Arabia
By Mark Landler and Mark Mazzetti
The New York Times
June 22, 2017

WASHINGTON – President Trump wasted no time on Wednesday calling the newly named crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. Less than 24 hours after King Salman elevated Prince Mohammed, his 31-year-old son, Mr. Trump offered congratulations and celebrated the monarchy’s cooperation in rooting out terrorist financing and other issues.

Even more than Karen Handel, the Republican who won a hotly contested House seat in a special election in Georgia this week, Prince Mohammed was Mr. Trump’s anointed candidate – in this case, for the byzantine struggle to control the House of Saud.

Mr. Trump views Prince Mohammed as a crucial ally in his effort to cement a Sunni Muslim alliance in the Persian Gulf. The prince, who also serves as the Saudi defense minister, favors a confrontational line toward Iran, which dovetails with the Trump administration’s hostile stance toward Tehran. And he is spearheading Saudi Arabia’s embargo of neighboring Qatar, which Mr. Trump has praised because he, like the Saudis, accuses the Qataris of financing extremist groups.

The young prince is also a favorite of the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Mr. Kushner began cultivating Prince Mohammed soon after Mr. Trump’s election. When the prince visited Washington in March, he dined with Mr. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, at their home. When the couple joined Mr. Trump on his visit to Saudi Arabia last month, the prince hosted Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump for a dinner at his house.

“There’s a certain compatibility there,” said Jon B. Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The president and his entourage think fellow billionaires who have an itch to get things done make the world go ‘round.”

Mr. Kushner and Prince Mohammed, senior officials said, worked closely together to choreograph Mr. Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, which yielded a renewed commitment by dozens of Arab and Muslim leaders to combat extremism in their countries and to turn off the financial spigot to extremist groups.

For Mr. Trump’s aides, that trip ranks as a highlight of his foreign policy so far, and they credit the prince for what one senior official described as under-promising and over-delivering.

Prince Mohammed’s elevated status was apparent in the earliest days of the Trump administration. Senior American officials said they wanted the United States to help Saudi Arabia with its campaign in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, in part because the success or failure of the military campaign could affect the prince’s fortunes in the kingdom’s succession battle.

During the prince’s first visit to the White House, in March, the president welcomed him with a meeting in the Oval Office and a formal lunch in the State Dining Room. The next day, Prince Mohammed spent four hours with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon.

Mr. Kushner also hopes for Prince Mohammed’s backing, or at least his blessing, in a peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinians. On Wednesday, Mr. Kushner made his first major foray into the process, meeting in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and in the West Bank with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

“The United States officials and Israeli leadership underscored that forging peace will take time,” White House officials said in a statement. But administration officials said the process would be helped if major Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia, signed on to the concept of an agreement.

Middle East experts said that Prince Mohammed believes Saudi Arabia should have a normal relationship with Israel in the future. But several expressed doubt that the prince would want the Saudis to be an important component of an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation.

While the Trump administration clearly views Prince Mohammed as a reformer – pointing to Vision 2030, his blueprint to modernize Saudi Arabia’s economy and society – others warned that the White House could be in for a disappointment. “There are other people who are more circumspect,” Mr. Alterman said. “They wonder if he has the right temperament. They wonder if he has the right political skills.”

That ambivalence ran through the Obama administration, which was caught off guard by the rapid rise of King Salman’s favorite son. Prince Mohammed, unlike other prominent royals, was not educated in the West and had not had a track record of government service, and he was nearly unknown in Washington when he ascended to the position of deputy crown prince in 2015.

He also assumed the title of defense minister and almost immediately became the public face of the kingdom’s hastily launched military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. The chaotic early months of the campaign gave him a reputation in some parts of the Obama administration as reckless and hotheaded.

There was also the problem of finding someone in Washington to develop a relationship with the young prince. Prince Mohammed’s natural counterpart on the American side, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, had little inclination to spend time nurturing ties to the prince.

Secretary of State John Kerry assumed that mantle, inviting Prince Mohammed to his Georgetown home for an iftar dinner and meeting with the prince in May 2016 on the Serene, a luxury yacht that the prince bought from a Russian billionaire.

Still, there were issues that could never be bridged. A particular point of friction was the Obama administration’s attempts at rapprochement with Iran.

At a meeting in Turkey in November 2015 between President Barack Obama and King Salman, the prince leapt into what American officials said was a lecture on what he saw as the administration’s failures in the Middle East.

There are no such differences with the Trump administration, however. Saudi officials have lavished praise on Mr. Trump for his bombing of Syria and his hawkish stance toward Iran.

The Trump administration also seems to have had little concern about showing favoritism in the rivalry between the prince and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who until Wednesday had been next in line to the Saudi throne.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef had close ties to national security officials in the Obama administration. But the political change in the United States this year brought a reversal of fortune for Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who lost many of his contacts.

The March visit to the White House by Prince Mohammed bin Salman so angered Prince Mohammed bin Nayef that he made his annoyance known to the American government using unofficial channels.



This Is Not Your Father’s Saudi Arabia
The new crown prince, 31, promises economic revival and a more assertive world role. Can he deliver?
By Karen Elliott House
Op-ed page
Wall Street Journal
June 22, 2017

The appointment of Mohammad bin Salman, 31, as Saudi Arabia’s next king will accelerate his radical reform and further solidify the U.S.-Saudi partnership. King Salman’s long-anticipated decision to name his son crown prince almost certainly is intended to present a unified face to the kingdom’s adversaries, especially Iran – and to bolster U.S. support for a more assertive Riyadh.

The royal decree removing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, was said to be supported by 31 of the 34 members of the Kingdom’s Allegiance Council, surviving sons and grandsons of Saudi Arabia’s founder. The old crown prince immediately pledged his loyalty to the new one, who knelt in front of his cousin in a public show of respect.

This announcement concludes a long struggle within the ruling family. Many royals had opposed Mohammad bin Salman precisely because they feared his father, now 81, intended to establish his own lineal monarchy at the expense of other family branches. The king won their support by amending the law of succession so that after the last of the founder’s sons is king – that will almost certainly be Salman – the king and crown prince can’t be from the same branch.

The new crown prince had assiduously wooed President Trump to counterbalance support for Mohammed bin Nayef among the U.S. defense and intelligence establishments. Mr. Trump’s strong support of Riyadh during his recent visit, coupled with growing Saudi-Iran tensions, seems to have moved King Salman to act. The new crown prince may be clearing the way for action against Qatar, which he has accused of supporting Iran and regional terrorist groups.

Because Mohammed bin Salman has already been setting policy almost single-handedly, his elevation isn’t likely to lead to any sharp changes at home, where he is pressing an ambitious agenda to wean the Kingdom off declining oil revenues and create a private-sector led economy. His reform plan, known as Vision 2030, is revolutionary. Out with government dependence; in with self-reliance. Out with antimodernist Wahhabi dogma and in with moderation. “Our vision is a strong, thriving and stable Saudi Arabia . . . with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method,” he said in unveiling the plan a year ago.

Even though the promised reforms have barely begun, they have sparked strong opposition as Saudi citizens feel the pocketbook impact of reduced subsidies for energy, water and electricity. Economic growth has nearly stopped as government cuts spending to ease huge budget deficits. The impact is particularly large because 80% of Saudi household income comes from government, which employs 6 in 10 Saudi workers.

All this has led many Saudis to take a wait-and-see attitude toward reform. Many assumed that should King Salman die and Mohammed bin Nayef accede, the new king would fire his young cousin. That uncertainty is gone. Mohammed bin Salman may even be able to persuade his father to step aside, so as to guarantee the crown prince’s accession. Power dies with a monarch, so the royal family could band together at Salman’s death to deny his son the throne.

With the succession settled, Saudi citizens are more likely to buckle down and accept painful change. The U.S. should welcome this clarity and do all it can to support reform inside Saudi Arabia as the best way to enhance both stability and human rights. The Trump administration also should welcome the prospect of working with a Saudi leader who seems to have bet his role in the royal family on partnership with the U.S. and assertive opposition to Iran.

Now both countries need a workable strategy to confront Tehran, which is gaining power in the region at the expense of both Riyadh and Washington. Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman has gone on the offense at home and in the region after generations of cautious defense. It’s one thing to go from defense to offense, far harder actually to score.



Change in the House of Saud
Mohammed bin Salman wants to transform the hidebound Kingdom.
Wall Street Journal editorial
June 22, 2017

Saudi Arabia has resisted modernity since its founding in 1932. But the political sands are shifting, and the change will accelerate with Wednesday’s appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as Crown Prince.

King Salman broke with decades of tradition with his royal decree that ousted his nephew, security czar Mohammed bin Nayef, in favor of Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi crown has typically passed from one octogenarian or septuagenarian brother to another, so the rise of the 31-year-old son as heir designate is a monumental development.

This is all the more remarkable given the young leader’s reformist inclinations. The Saudis face a triple challenge in falling oil prices, a youth demographic bulge and Iranian imperialism. The Crown Prince believes the answer is an assertive foreign policy that unites Sunni Arab states against Tehran, combined with domestic reform that weans the Kingdom off oil.

This regional vision took shape soon after King Salman ascended the throne in 2015. As Defense Minister (a portfolio he will retain), the Crown Prince emerged as the architect of the Saudi-led military campaign to oust the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen.

The Yemen operation has been long and hard, but it has largely succeeded in cutting off Iranian supplies to the Houthis and boosted the confidence of Arab states. Mohammed bin Salman has also spearheaded efforts to diplomatically isolate Qatar over its two-faced policy of cooperating with the West while funding Islamist groups like Hamas.

Last year the Crown Prince launched Vision 2030, a reform program to diversify the Saudi economy and expand the role of private enterprise. The heart of the plan is to boost the private share of the economy to 65% by 2030 from about 40%, and reduce the government’s dependence on oil for revenues, now at 70%.

That’s a tall order in a Kingdom that has historically offered its citizens oil-funded, cradle-to-grave welfare in exchange for little say in politics. Many Saudis have grown up to expect high-paying government jobs that are increasingly hard to subsidize with oil at under $50 a barrel. Unleashing the private economy will also require liberating Saudi women to enter the work force – the right to drive would be a start – and that has already triggered clashes with the Wahhabi clerical establishment.

Earlier this year the government was forced to reverse a pay cut for state employees. Yet Mohammed bin Salman has made progress in other areas. A plan to offer public shares in the state-run oil company, Aramco, is moving ahead. Concerts are performed and movie theaters are opening for the first time in the Kingdom, allowing young Saudis access to entertainment and social interaction that their peers nearly everywhere else take for granted.

His appointment as Crown Prince will strengthen his hand by putting to rest competing claims to the throne from more conservative corners of the House of Saud with its 7,000 princes. A moderate and prosperous Saudi Arabia would bolster stability across the Arab world and is squarely in the U.S. national interest. Washington should support and encourage the young prince as he pursues change.


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