Saudi King Seen Preparing Favorite Son for Power

Prince Mohammad now commands the desert kingdom’s two pillars of power: oil and weapons.

Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the defense minister and deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia
Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the defense minister and deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia (AP/Hassan Ammar)

When King Salman shook up Saudi Arabia’s leadership last week, the member of the royal family that seemed to benefit the most from the changes was his favorite son, Mohammad bin Salman. He was put second in line to the throne as deputy crown prince.

Before the weekend, Prince Mohammad was also named the chairman of a new council to oversee the state oil company, Saudi Aramco.

He was previously appointed defense minister by his father, who ascended the throne in January when his older brother, Abdullah, died.

In that capacity, he has led the kingdom’s military intervention in neighboring Yemen, where Houthi rebels are supported by the Sunni regime’s nemesis, Iran.

Although the campaign has so far failed to push back the Houthis, who control almost the entire west of the country, and Salman ordered the National Guard to join the operation in April, the relatively inexperienced Mohammad’s elevation to defense chief does not appear to have been called into question.

Arms and oil

The prince’s official duties now give him command over the desert kingdom’s two pillars of external power: arms and oil.

Saudi Arabia has long armed and financed causes and proxy wars across the Middle East without involving itself directly in conflicts. Most recently, it has supported the largely Sunni uprising in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, another Iranian ally.

The kingdom has also kept up oil production despite falling petroleum prices worldwide in a move that puts pressure on other oil-exporting countries, such as Iran and Russia, while making shale oil production less competitive.

Next generation

Mohammed was Salman’s private advisor when he himself became defense minister in 2011. After he moved up to crown prince following the death of Prince Nayef in 2012, Mohammad was named chief of his court.

Unlike most Saudi princes, Mohammed was not educated in the West. He studied law at King Saud University in Riyadh.

Last week, King Saud replaced several key members of his cabinet, including the economy and foreign ministers.

He also named his nephew, Muhammad bin Nayef, crown prince in place of Prince Muqrin, the former intelligence chief.

Muhammad would be the first Saudi king from the second generation of princes. All monarchs so far have been sons of the modern kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saud.