In his lightning rise to power in two years, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has shaken things up in ways not seen since the founding of the kingdom 85 years ago. Abroad, he escalated the war in Yemen and this month cut ties with neighboring Qatar. At home, he instigated an economic overhaul that’s popular with foreign investors, but harder to swallow for some Saudis. At 31, he is heir to the throne, effectively running the world’s largest oil exporter now and likely for decades to come. A grandson of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, his ascendancy stunned Saudi watchers more used to seeing one geriatric king follow another in a kingdom used to cautious change, a low-profile foreign policy and generous handouts to its population.
“He’s ambitious, bold, thinks big, but is running very high risks,” said Yezid Sayigh, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “He hasn’t been rewarded for performance. He’s being rewarded because he’s King Salman’s favorite son and that ultimately he would become positioned to become the next king.”
Here’s a look at how he got there and what he faces:
* In 2007, Prince Mohammed graduated fourth in his class from King Saud University with a bachelor’s degree in law. He resisted getting into government at first, telling the director of the Bureau of Experts, which serves as the cabinet’s legal adviser, that he was off to get married, earn a master’s degree overseas and make his fortune.
* His father urged him to give the government a chance, and Prince Mohammed did so for two years, focusing on changing corporate laws and regulations. His boss, Essam bin Saeed, said the prince showed a restless intellect and no patience for bureaucracy. “Procedures that used to take two months, he’d ask for them in two days,” said Saeed. “Today, it’s one day.”
* The prince resigned his government post and went to work reorganizing his father’s foundation, which builds housing, and started his own not-for-profit organization aimed at fostering innovation and leadership among Saudi youth. In 2012, his father became crown prince. Six months later, Prince Mohammed was named his chief of court.
* Young, ambitious and inexperienced, in 2015 he took control over the state oil monopoly, the national investment fund, economic policy, and the Ministry of Defense.
* For two years before his appointment, the prince had been quietly planning a major restructuring of Saudi Arabia’s government and economy, aiming to fulfill what he calls his generation’s “different dreams” for a future after oil.
* In 2016, the prince unveiled a plan for the post-hydrocarbon era called “Vision 2030.” Part of the program envisages selling some of Saudi Aramco and the creation of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. Massive subsidies for gasoline and electricity were reduced. Visa fees were raised. Bonus payments for state employees and ministers’ salaries were cut, only to be restored seven months later following criticism among citizens accustomed to generous state handouts.
* The challenges that face him are daunting. The kingdom’s population is young – more than 70 percent are aged below 30 — and needs jobs, housing and financial security. The religious establishment is powerful and may resist his attempts to open up. Women cannot drive and are legal dependents of male relatives whose permission they need to travel abroad or marry. Gender-segregation is still enforced in public.
* In a 2016 Bloomberg interview, he said social changes would take time. “I just want to remind the world that American women had to wait long to get their right to vote,” he said. “So we need time. We have taken many steps.”
* In the Bloomberg interview, he said he benefited from two influences when growing up: technology and the royal family. His generation was the first on the Internet, the first to play video games, and the first to get its information from screens. “We think in a very different way,” he said. “Our dreams are different.”
* Prince Mohammed has said he’s used to resistance. He says he studies Winston Churchill and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and will turn adversity to his advantage.