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In a shake-up, Saudi king names son Mohammed bin Salman new crown prince

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Wednesday appointed his 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, as crown prince, replacing the country’s counter-terrorism czar with the young activist leader at a time when the kingdom is struggling with low oil prices, a diplomatic crisis in Qatar, war in Yemen and a battle with Iran for regional influence.

“The prince is seen as the new public face of Saudi Arabia: He’s young, he’s charismatic, he’s ambitious,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “He appeals to many young Saudis, who see in him an image of themselves. If you travel in the kingdom, his image is everywhere.”

The decision to replace the previous crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, with his younger cousin was announced by royal decree via the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

It was expected to put to rest speculation and dissent among the royal family concerning the younger prince, a rising star who has been accumulating power since his father, 81, ascended the throne two years ago. Last month, he met with President Trump and other regional leaders during a summit in Riyadh.

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Mohammed bin Nayef, who studied at the FBI and Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism institute, had worked closely with U.S. officials after the Sept. 11 attacks, to share intelligence and prevent terrorist strikes. But his profile slipped in recent years after he was wounded in a 2009 assassination attempt.

Saudi news agencies played down the possibility of any turmoil associated with Wednesday’s news, noting a majority of a council of senior princes approved the appointment and broadcasting video of the former crown prince pledging his allegiance. But succession is key in Saudi Arabia, which remains one of the world’s few absolute monarchies, with all major decisions made by the king.

Now, Gerges said, “there’s no longer any ambiguity about who calls the shots.”

After the announcement Saudi Arabia’s stock market was up by more than 3.5% in midday trading.

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Those who have worked with the new crown prince praise him as hardworking and detail-oriented with a penchant for technology and rapidly implementing changes that at times rankle the historically conservative kingdom.

He also caused some controversy in the past with outrageous statements and lavish spending — publicly offering Kanye West $10 million for a night with Kim Kardashian, and buying a $549-million yacht on impulse while vacationing in southern France.

He managed to counter some of that criticism by remaining true to his roots. The crown prince was educated entirely in the kingdom, unusual among the country’s elite. He is a family man who wears traditional clothing and conducts interviews in Arabic.

As deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman has gained popularity for pursuing an ambitious “Saudi Vision 2030” agenda as defense minister and head of the state oil company, Aramco. But he also drew criticism for plans to, for the first time, offer for sale public shares in Aramco, which underpins the kingdom’s economy.

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He has pushed for the kingdom to lead an Arab military alliance against Iran in the Middle East, with mixed success. He has championed Saudi Arabia’s role in fighting Iran-allied Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, an increasingly unpopular two-year conflict that has devastated the region’s poorest country.

In remarks aired on Saudi TV in May, Mohammed bin Salman said Iran’s goal was “to control the Islamic world,” and he vowed to take “the battle” to that country. This month, he sided with neighboring Persian Gulf nations in their ongoing blockade of Iran-allied Qatar, a standoff U.S. officials are now trying to end.

“The crown prince has taken a very assertive approach toward Iran. He also is seen as a major player in forcing Qatar down,” Gerges said, which could account for the timing of his appointment, which came earlier than many had expected.

As part of Vision 2030, the crown prince, referred to by many simply as “MBS,” also wants to change Saudi domestic policy, decreasing oil dependence and modernizing the historically strict Sunni Muslim country. His appointment gives him greater leeway to pursue that latter plan, experts said, because it puts him in control of the country’s Interior Ministry.

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The crown prince has already gained popularity among Saudi Arabia’s young population for pushing reforms aimed at opening the country to entertainment and greater foreign investment, and some expect him to go even further now, perhaps lifting the ban on women driving and working in certain fields.

Saeed Wahabi, a Saudi expert based in the United Arab Emirates, noted that the crown prince has said in interviews that he would like to see the kingdom return to social standards established before strict religious laws were created in the 1980s. He said the driving ban for women could be changed in coming months.

“I’m expecting a boost domestically. He will have 100% freedom to do what he was saying in his interviews,” Wahabi said.

Also part of the royal reorganization Wednesday was an announcement that Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud, 33, would become the new interior minister, in charge of counter-terrorism and domestic security. He is the nephew of Mohammed bin Nayef, while Mohammed bin Salman is the former crown prince’s cousin. All come from the powerful Sudairi branch of the royal family.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf


UPDATES:

4:35 a.m.: The article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

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June 21, 3:22 a.m.: The article was updated throughout with additional background

9:44 p.m.: This article was updated with information on Mohammed bin Salman.

This article was originally published on June 20 at 8:50 p.m..


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