World

Saudi prince’s growing power has some on alert

King moves son, 29, to position of great authority

Prince Mohammed bin Salman (seated at left) with President Obama and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (second right) at the White House in May.
Doug Mills/New York Times
Prince Mohammed bin Salman (seated at left) with President Obama and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (second right) at the White House in May.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Until about four months ago, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 29, was just another Saudi royal who dabbled in stocks and real estate.

He grew up overshadowed by three older half brothers who were among the most accomplished princes in the kingdom — the first Arab astronaut; an Oxford-educated political scientist who was once a research fellow at Georgetown and also founded a major investment company; and a highly regarded deputy oil minister.

But that was before their father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, 79, ascended to the throne. Now Prince Mohammed, the eldest son of the king’s third and most recent wife, is the rising star.

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He has swiftly accumulated more power than any prince has ever held, upending a longstanding system of distributing positions around the royal family to help preserve its unity, and he has used his growing influence to take a leading role in Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and newly assertive stance toward the region.

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In the four months since his coronation, King Salman has put Prince Mohammed in charge of the state oil monopoly, the public investment company, domestic and economic policy, and the ministry of defense.

He is the most visible leader of Saudi Arabia’s two-month-old air war in Yemen, and his father has installed him as deputy crown prince, passing over dozens of older princes to put him second in line to the throne. Stunning the kingdom, King Salman removed his younger brother, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, 69, as crown prince and replaced him with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, the popular interior minister. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef has no male heirs, and Prince Mohammed bin Salman is now next in line.

The sweeping changes have thrust the young prince into power at a time when Saudi Arabia is locked in a series of escalating wars as it tries to defend its vision of the region.

“The king has put his son on an incredibly steep learning curve, clearly,” said Ford M. Fraker, president of the Middle East Policy Council and a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “The king is obviously convinced he is up to the challenge.”

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But some Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the prince and the king, say they are worried about the growing influence of the prince, with one even calling him “rash” and “impulsive.” And in interviews, at least two other princes in the main line of the royal family made clear that some older members of the clan have doubts as well.

King Salman, of course, has ultimate authority, and some diplomats who have met with both princes in recent months said the crown prince appeared avuncular toward his younger cousin. Several said Prince Mohamed bin Nayef appeared to be working hard to guide and train Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But others said Prince Mohammed bin Salman played a major role in instigating the Yemen air campaign.

After meeting with both princes at a Persian Gulf summit at Camp David last month, President Obama said the younger Prince Mohammed “struck us as extremely knowledgeable, very smart.”

Echoing commentary in the state news media, many Saudi subjects interviewed on the streets of Riyadh in recent days praised Prince Mohammed as a representative of the nearly 70 percent of the population that is under 30.

But although Saudis are usually reluctant to voice dissent, several said they worried about his rise. “This is a large family that are competing to be rulers, and having a young guy in control of the government is going to create a lot of problems,” said one middle-aged man at an outdoor cafe who gave his name only as Abu Salah.