Crown Prince of Disorder

Mohammed bin Salman's consolidation of power is making Saudi Arabia a more unpredictable U.S. ally than ever before.

President Donald Trump meets with Mohammed bin Salman, then deputy crown prince, in the Oval Office on March 14, 2017.
President Donald Trump meets with Mohammed bin Salman, then deputy crown prince, in the Oval Office on March 14, 2017.

Mohammed bin Salman’s first visit to the United States as crown prince and ruler-in-waiting comes at an inflection point in the decades-long U.S.-Saudi relationship. Since 2015, Mohammed bin Salman has concentrated power to a degree unprecedented in modern Saudi history. While the crown prince has heralded his effort to transform the Saudi economy, his changes to the kingdom’s balance of power are transforming the nature of the Saudi state.

The greater unpredictability in Riyadh has come at a time when U.S. policymaking itself has become more volatile under President Donald Trump’s administration. The result is a state of growing uncertainty for the Middle East, as decision-making on both sides becomes more personalized and moves beyond the institutional bedrock that has long underpinned the U.S.-Saudi strategic relationship. The crown prince said in a recent 60 Minutes interview that “only death” would stop his ascent — and with regional tensions with Iran again on the rise and the wars in Yemen and Syria far from over, his ambitions come at a particularly volatile time for U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Mohammed bin Salman is attempting to remake the kingdom that his grandfather, King Abdulaziz, created in 1932 and that has been ruled since Abdulaziz’s death by his sons, ending with King Salman. He is demolishing the order that was created more by accident than by design upon Abdulaziz’s death in 1953, when political authority was spread across multiple power brokers — providing the kingdom with an informal system of checks and balances.

While formal institutions had barely existed during Abdulaziz’s long reign, his many sons created the modern mechanics of government after his death and moved into positions of seniority that they proceeded to occupy for decades. Power solidified across a set of “princely fiefdoms” that ossified over time as the sons of Abdulaziz grew older. While the existence of multiple centers of gravity held back streamlined and efficient government and meant that decision-making could be painfully slow, they did nevertheless act as a bulwark against the exercise of unconstrained power by any one individual.

But the key figures in the Saudi political establishment have died over the past decade, leaving the current king as the last man standing of his generation of post-1953 state builders. Crown Prince Sultan died in 2011 after 48 years as defense minister, and his successor as crown prince, Nayef, died a year later after 37 years as interior minister. Both King Abdullah, who headed the National Guard for 48 years, and Prince Saud al-Faisal, who served as foreign minister for 40 years, died in 2015. These four men had between them 173 years in office, and their exit from the political scene meant that the leadership of Saudi institutions came into play after decades of being impervious to reform.

The removal of these barriers to change meant that Mohammed bin Salman encountered less formal opposition within the royal family to his accumulation of power. The Saudi government has never been a one-man show, but decisions taken by Mohammed bin Salman since he replaced his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince last June appear to be moving the kingdom in that direction. The detention of dozens of senior princes and members of the Saudi business elite in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton in November generated worldwide headlines and was cast as part of a sweeping crackdown on corruption. Just as important, however, was a wave of arrests in September 2017 that targeted journalists, clerics, and political activists, squeezing the already limited spaces for independent voices in the kingdom.

Mohammed bin Salman has pinned his future on Vision 2030, his economic reform plan, and the transformation of Saudi economy and society. However, he has found it harder to translate words into practice: The ongoing uncertainty over the sale of 5 percent of Saudi Aramco more than two years after Mohammed bin Salman announced the plan is just one piece of evidence of how his ambitions on the economic front remain unfulfilled. His National Transformation Program 2020, which is intended to run alongside Vision 2030, has already had to be substantially revamped to make it more focused. Attempts to implement politically sensitive reforms, such as scaling back benefits and subsidies, have been delayed and reversed in the face of public disquiet, suggesting the crown prince has not yet built up enough political capital to push them through.

During his multicity visit to the United States, Mohammed bin Salman will seek to reassure potential investors wary of the lack of transparency and regard for due process that characterized the anti-corruption purge and its aftermath. Those investors will be particularly wary about pouring billions of dollars into the Saudi economy after a recent New York Times report detailed mistreatment and seizure of assets from the detainees. While his visits to New York, Texas, and California will focus on securing American buy-in for his domestic agenda, Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Washington has assumed greater significance since the sudden removal of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. It is little secret that Saudi officials and their counterparts in the United Arab Emirates felt that Tillerson opposed their hard-line stance on the blockade of Qatar and watered down the president’s visceral opposition to maintaining the Iran nuclear deal he inherited from President Barack Obama.

Both Mohammed bin Salman and his Emirati counterpart, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, spent considerable effort wooing Trump and his influential son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, as soon as they took office. However, they suffered setbacks in recent months as Trump flipped 180 degrees from his stance last summer and publicly backed Qatar’s emir as a U.S. counterterrorism partner while Kushner became embroiled in a series of allegations over his conduct in the run-up to the Qatar blockade.

Both Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed will see Mike Pompeo’s nomination as Tillerson’s replacement as a chance to regain the momentum they felt they had sealed during Trump’s much-hyped visit to Riyadh in May 2017. As a member of Congress, Pompeo articulated hawkish anti-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Iran stances that paralleled strongly those in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Saudi and Emirati officials may therefore use his pending appointment as the pretext for a new round of pressure designed to isolate Qatar again and scrap the Iran nuclear deal ahead of Trump’s self-imposed May deadline for “fixing” it.

Indeed, Trump and Mohammed bin Salman may come to see each other as kindred spirits. During his 14 months as president, Trump has poured scorn on U.S. institutions, from the FBI to the State Department, and his conduct of foreign policy has been unpredictable and prone to unexpected declarations. The crown prince has also taken decisions that appear to throw caution to the wind, such as the launch of the war in Yemen, the embargo of Qatar, and the detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. With the White House distracted by domestic developments and Mohammed bin Salman struggling to show returns on his regional policies, the visit of the king-in-waiting will occur against the backdrop of tensions that may yet overshadow U.S.-Saudi ties for some time to come.