Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud is pictured at the Divan Palace in'Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 8, 2016. Rainer Jensen—picture-alliance/dpa/AP
6:56 AM ET
Undoing decades of royal tradition, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman appointed his 31-year-old son Mohammed Bin Salman to be next in line for the throne on Wednesday, signaling a historic political shift in one of the Middle East’s key regional powers.
A rising star within the Saudi royal family, Mohammed Bin Salman was already one of the kingdom’s most powerful leaders. He is regarded as an advocate for social reforms and a forceful Saudi foreign policy, and is also leading a massive overhaul of the Saudi economy. As the country’s defense minister, he is in charge of Saudi Arabia’s two-year-old air war in Yemen, where more than 10,000 people have died in one of the world’s most dire humanitarian crises.
The young prince is now in position to take control of Saudi Arabia in a moment of increasing friction with the country’s neighbors. Saudi Arabia recently joined the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and several other countries to launch an embargo of Qatar, igniting a long-simmering conflict among Arab states over the role of political Islam in the region. The Saudi government is also grappling with the collapse of the price of oil, and ongoing tensions with Iran, the kingdom’s adversary in a region-wide struggle for power and influence.
In a royal decree on Wednesday, King Salman ordered a change to his country’s succession law, effectively transferring the sequence down a generation. King Salman removed the previous crown prince, his nephew Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is 57. Bin Nayef was also removed from his position as interior minister. In another sign of a generational shift, Bin Nayef’s replacement as interior minister is a 33-year-old relatively unknown prince named Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef.
In a striking display of unity, the new crown prince appeared before the cameras on Wednesday morning, kissing the hand and kneeling in front of Mohammed Bin Nayef, the man he replaced, after receiving a vow of allegiance from him at the Safa Palace in Mecca. There were few signs of dissent, as 31 of 34 senior members of the royal family voted in favor of the change.
“The process couldn't have gone smoother than it did,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi political analyst affiliated with the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“Finding alternative succession mechanisms was only a matter of time in Saudi Arabia,” he told TIME in an email.“The former system by which sons of the founder, King Abdulaziz, would pass the throne on horizontally had to shift down a generation at some point.”
The new Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman startled political observers when he emerged as one of Saudi Arabia’s key leaders in 2015 after his father ascended to the throne. A complex figure, he is the public face of crucial changes to Saudi Arabia’s economy, and also of the country’s lethal military intervention in neighboring Yemen.
Saudi Arabia launched its military operation in Yemen in March 2015, intending to dislodge Houthi rebels who ousted the country’s internationally recognized government. More than two years on, the Houthis remain in control of the capital, Sanaa, and the war has taken an immense toll on civilians. Yemen is now gripped by a growing food crisis, with millions facing starvation, as well as a fast spreading outbreak of cholera that now stands at more than 70,000 cases.
Mohammed Bin Salman says he sees no possibility of dialogue with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival in a regional contest for power. “We were bitten once. We will not be bitten again. We know we are a major target for the Iranian regime,” he said in a television interview in May. “We will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia but we will work so the battle is there in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia,” he added.
The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a major dividing line in the Middle East, as both states struggle for influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula. Iranian state television labeled the Saudi king’s decrees a “soft coup” on Wednesday.