Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Wednesday designated his son as his successor, paving the way for the young, assertive prince to assume the throne at a time when it is facing tumultuous change at home and intensifying rivalries in the Middle East.
Salman has replaced his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN), who had previously held the role of crown prince and interior minister. MBN was well-regarded in Washington for his competence on security issues, and he was much more cautious than his uncle and cousin regarding Saudi policies in the region. Removing MBN from his posts and promoting the reckless, inexperienced, and incompetent MBS bodes very ill for the future of Saudi policy in the region. MBN was known to be an opponent of the disastrous war on Yemen, of which MBS was a leading architect. There is also speculation that he may have been  similarly wary of the attempt to bully Qatar into submission, and that may have provided the pretext for removing him. In contrast to MBN’s caution, the king’s son is closely identified with the turn towards a more aggressive and destructive foreign policy, and he continues to be deluded  about the kingdom’s ability to win the war on Yemen. As defense minister, he is one of the people in the Saudi government most responsible for the failed campaign in Yemen, and despite the obvious failure there he is being rewarded by being put in line to be the next king.
The king has been grooming his son for some time to prepare him for this promotion, but it was not expected to come so soon or so suddenly. Trump’s wholehearted embrace of the Saudis presumably did nothing to discourage Salman from ousting the person in Riyadh that many U.S. officials trust most. Elevating a young royal with such a thin and poor record reflects poorly on Salman’s judgment, and it promises to create a lot of problems for Saudi Arabia, the region, and the U.S. We should expect Saudi policies in the region to continue to be as aggressive and ill-conceived as they have been, and they could very well become even worse. The need to disentangle the U.S. from the noxious relationship with Riyadh has just become much more urgent.