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Failing Upwards: The Rise of Mohammed bin Salman

King Salman has ordered [1] major changes [2] in the Saudi government, most notably promoting his son Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to be the new crown prince:

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 [3] 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 [4] 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.

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6 Comments To "Failing Upwards: The Rise of Mohammed bin Salman"

#1 Comment By Ken T On June 21, 2017 @ 10:37 am

“Elevating a young royal with such a thin and poor record reflects poorly on Salman’s judgment, “

Oh, for a second there I thought you were talking about Jared Kushner.

But no matter. The Saudis will have our unquestioning and unconditional support regardless.

#2 Comment By The Unwisdom of Salman On June 21, 2017 @ 11:41 am

If Saudi Arabia’s future is to be decades of autocratic rule by Mohammed bin Salman, it’s headed down a very bad road. Foreign policy realists had hoped that “wise heads” in Saudi Arabia might eventually bring bin Salman to heel, but his elevation to Crown Prince makes that far less likely. Indeed, it is now even likelier that Saudi Arabia will cause more bloody messes and embroil us in them.

#3 Comment By Maurer On June 21, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

It’s worth mentioning that King Salman peremptorily changed longstanding rules that helped guarantee peaceful succession.

Junking tradition and stability is a dangerous thing to do in a monarchy, and it would be ironic if in his haste to ensure that his controversial and incompetent son will be the next king, Salman also stripped him of legitimacy and made him an assassination target.

#4 Comment By Swami On June 21, 2017 @ 4:00 pm

Daniel Larson, it is (was?) my understanding that selecting the Crown Prince was a consensus decision of the principal royal family members. Will this decision create a rift between Nayef and Salman factions? And what are the longer term implications for the stability of the country?

#5 Comment By Chris Chuba On June 21, 2017 @ 10:51 pm

This will most likely guarantee the downfall of Saudi Arabia and the ascendency of Iran.

For all of the talk about how Iran has ‘taken over’ the M.E. in reality, Iran always encourages dialogue, diplomacy, and emphasizes national sovereignty. It is the Saudis who do the bullying. The countries in the M.E., with the exception of Israel and the KSA are warming towards Iran and getting spooked by the Saudis.

Salman’s ascendency will doom that family and squander that country’s oil wealth on vainglorious projects and bribing U.S. think tanks.

#6 Comment By Reza bin Salman On June 23, 2017 @ 10:50 am

“This will most likely guarantee the downfall of Saudi Arabia and the ascendency of Iran. “

It also makes it likelier that what happened in Iran will now happen in Saudi Arabia. It’s all too easy to see bin Salman as a 21st century edition of the Shah.