Saudi Arabia, America’s oldest ally in the Middle East, is in the midst of the most profound changes in decades. The leadership is going through an unprecedented generational change and has adopted an aggressive foreign policy. The driver of change is the king’s favorite son, Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman.
MBS, as he’s often called, is 30 years old, remarkably energetic, and very ambitious. King Salman has promoted him to an array of powerful positions and concentrated power in his hands quickly. In addition to being third in the line of succession behind the king and his cousin Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, he often acts as the country’s top diplomat and he chairs the committee that sets economic and energy policy. He acquires new titles and responsibilities every week. Late in April he became the Saudi chief of a new cooperation council with Jordan, for example, with promises this will lead to stepped-up Saudi financial aid to Jordan.
The prince is the author of “Saudi Vision 2030,” an ambitious plan to wean the country of its dependence on oil income and create a more diverse economy. On May 7 the king issued 51 royal orders restructuring the government to implement his son’s plan, including sacking the oil minister, Ali Naimi, who had run the portfolio for two decades. The new orders also seek to encourage more foreign pilgrimage to the two holy cities of Mecca and Medinah by highlighting the opportunity for pilgrimage not just during the traditional Haj holy month, but year-round as well. Encouraging tourism is a major part of “Vision 2030.” All of the changes bear MBS’s stamp.