Mohammed bin Nayef replaced by Mohammed bin Salman, 31-year-old in charge of economy and war in Yemen
Mohammed bin Salman with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef during the 136th Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty
King Salman of Saudi Arabia has ousted his nephew as crown prince and replaced him with his son, Mohammed bin Salman, confirming the 31-year-old as heir and consolidating the kingdom’s move to reassert its influence as a regional power.
The move was announced by royal decree just after midnight, stunning the Saudi establishment, which has seen Bin Salman’s profile soar over the past three years but regarded the role of the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, a veteran security tsar, as secure.
President Trump called Bin Salman on Wednesday to congratulate him on his “recent elevation”.
“The president and the crown prince committed to close cooperation to advance our shared goals of security, stability, and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond,” a White House statement said, adding that the two leaders talked about cutting off support for terrorists, resolving Saudi Arabia’s dispute with Qatar, economic cooperation and “a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
A source familiar with Trump foreign policy and national security said that Bin Salman was seen by the White House as a key ally.
“The circles who have worked on the bridge between this administration and the Arab coalition, they know each other and they know Prince Mohammed is a solid ally,” the source said. “The consolidation of Prince Mohammed’s influence within the government of Saudi Arabia is going to be seen as a positive development for the administration ... and now there are less risks that there will be opposition to him in the near future.”
The upheaval follows a dizzying series of moves from the usually cautious kingdom, which in recent weeks has seen it recalibrate relations with Washington and open a diplomatic offensive against Qatar, led by Bin Salman’s office, while pressing ahead with a war in Yemen and an ambitious economic and cultural overhaul at home.
Bin Salman has been central to the changes, which have helped his profile and powers grow rapidly under the tutelage of an 81-year-old monarch who has given him an almost free hand across most aspects of society.
By contrast, Bin Nayef, a former interior minister and intelligence chief, and more traditional US ally, had been increasingly marginalised and the decree removed him from all his positions. He had played little role in the reform programme and was given little face time with Donald Trump during the US president’s visit to Riyadh in May, which is widely seen to have precipitated the change in succession.
Iran’s state television, which reflects the views of Tehran’s leaders, called the Saudi appointment “a soft coup”. The two countries are involved in proxy conflicts across the Middle East and the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar came in part over its conciliatory relationship with Iran.
Guardian graphic | Source: The Economist, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Bin Salman retains his role as defence minister and adds the position of deputy prime minister to his portfolio. He also chairs a weekly cabinet meeting that focuses on all aspects of Saudi society. The country’s allegiance council approved the changes by 31 out of 34 votes.
The decision to blockade and isolate Qatar, nominally a Saudi ally, was also led by Bin Salman’s office. The move, which continues to reverberate around the regional Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), was sparked by the Trump visit that publicly reprioritised Riyadh as a regional ally and wound back the Obama administration’s warming relations with Iran.
However, the Qatar blockade has split the Trump administration. While Trump forged a bond with Bin Salman, the sudden aggressive move against Doha alarmed the Pentagon and the State Department, which on Wednesday put out a stern statement rebuking Riyadh and its allies for failing to come up with a formal justification for the embargo.
On Wednesday, the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said that justification appeared to be in the pipeline.
“In regards to the continuing dispute within the GCC, we understand a list of demands has been prepared and coordinated by the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, and Bahrainis,” Tillerson said in a written statement. “We hope the list of demands will soon be presented to Qatar and will be reasonable and actionable.”
Riyadh has sought to consolidate what it sees as its renewed prestige, and impose its presence in the region. Qatar had been viewed as an outlier because of its connections to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which Bin Salman had seen as threats in Riyadh and elsewhere in the Gulf. In interviews, he has regularly ruled out dialogue with Iran, accusing it of “trying to control the Islamic world”.
Tensions have been simmering between Tehran and Riyadh recently, with Iranian authorities confirming on Tuesday the arrests of three Iranian nationals by Saudi coast guards last week. Both sides provided clashing versions - Tehran said they were fishermen sailing on fishing boats while Riyadh claimed they were members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency, affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards, called the appointment “a political earthquake.”
Mohammed bin Salman with Donald Trump in the Oval Office in March. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
A senior Iranian MP, Seyedhossein Naghavi-Hosseini, who is the speaker of the parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, urged restraint from the Saudis.
“After the appointment of Bin Salman as the crown prince, we urge Saudi officials to act with prudence and according to international norms and they should know their limits,” he said, according to the semi-official Isna news agency.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran does not want war with any country and we believe we can resolve differences with dialogue. There is no need for foreign interference ... but Trump visited Saudi Arabia to do warmongering,”
The rapid rise of the prince has not been without criticism in Riyadh. “Lots of people don’t like him here,” said a western diplomat in the Saudi capital last month. “He is seen as precocious and beyond criticism. There is a view among parts of the establishment that he is not worthy of the powers that he has been given.”
Younger Saudis, however, are thought to be broadly behind an empowered prince who has regularly pledged to cater for their needs – by sharply increasing entertainment options across the conservative kingdom, while emphasising other touchstone issues such as education and more access to skilled jobs.
The Saudi stock market closed up over 5.5% following the news of Bin Salman’s appointment.