Saudis awoke Wednesday morning to what was arguably one of the largest royal shake-ups in their kingdom’s history. At 4 a.m. local time on April 29, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 79, issued a series of royal decrees that mapped out Saudi Arabia’s future, hastening the transition to the next generation of princes and cementing his direct descendants’ power for decades to come.
The decrees reverberated far beyond the Saudi royal court: Businessmen rescheduled flights, and investors canceled meetings, scrambling to react to the news. “Of course, I can’t travel now,” one local media commentator said of his scratched plans. As part of the royal decrees, King Salman relieved Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz — the youngest surviving son of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz — of his post. King Salman replaced him with Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, his nephew and the architect of the kingdom’s counterterrorism strategy, who now becomes the first grandson of King Abdulaziz to be next in line for the throne. King Salman appointed his favourite son, Mohammed bin Salman, who by most accounts is in his early to mid-30s, as deputy crown prince.
Crucially, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef has two daughters but no known sons. He is therefore unlikely to shake up the order of succession when he becomes king in the same way that King Salman just did. In a kingdom used to slow, evolutionary change, this pre-dawn reshuffling of Saudi Arabia’s top leadership is tectonic. The changes were not entirely unexpected, however, though few expected it would be so soon. Since King Salman ascended to the throne in January, his son Mohammed has risen sharply through the ranks. He was appointed defense minister and head of the royal court, a position that has been compared to a Saudi version of prime minister. It had become clear to everyone in the kingdom that the young prince was going places.
“Someone outside might perceive this to be divisive, but what they don’t realize is that it is based on consensus,” says John Sfakianakis, Middle East director at investment firm Ashmore Group and a former advisor to the Saudi finance minister. “They consulted a lot of princes before this.” Even for the public, the optics of the power shift have been emerging for months. Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, as he is now called among diplomats and in Twitter shorthand, has been the public face of the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen. His picture has also popped up frequently in the media as he inspects ministries and hosts government meetings.