Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, has swept into de facto power in less than three years, bringing a dynamism rarely seen in a kingdom that has mostly been ruled by monarchs in their 70s or 80s. The crown prince’s rapid moves, however, have brought both successes and failures. This week’s royal decree ordering an end to the ban on women driving is the most dramatic of the prince’s domestic changes.
As the favored son of King Salman, the prince oversees nearly every major aspect of the country’s defense, economy, internal security, social reforms and foreign policy.
It is a huge contrast to three years ago, when he was a young, inexperienced royal with little pull. He was overshadowed in name and power, with two senior royals in line to inherit the throne before him. But since his father – now 81 – became king in 2015, the son has been steadily elevated.
Now Prince Mohammed bin Salman is so well-known he is often simply referred to as MBS. With no deputy, he is the only foreseeable heir to the crown and its absolute powers, which could be handed to him as early as next year if the king abdicates the throne, as insiders and analysts suggest might happen.
MBS’ headline-grabbing path to power has been paved with controversy, conflict and combat. Here are some of those missteps and triumphs:
REFORMING THE KINGDOM
The royal decree lifting the ban on women driving has been hailed by rights groups and leaders around the world. It marks the most significant advancement for women’s rights in the kingdom in years – Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to still bar women from driving.
The decision is part of MBS’ wide-reaching plans to transform the kingdom. His Vision 2030 calls for reforming the Saudi economy and loosening social restrictions in order to preserve stability in the face of lower oil prices, austerity measures and a burgeoning youth population.
MBS is also behind the creation of an entertainment authority that aims to ramp up local spending. It has organized music concerts after a nearly two-decade-long ban, movie screenings despite there being no cinemas in the kingdom, monster truck shows and even a Comic-Con festival.
Another key reform in line with the crown prince’s blueprint was the announcement this year that girls would be allowed to play sports in public schools for the first time.
Despite being behind a number of social reforms, MBS is also behind a crackdown on people who dared criticize or openly question some of his more controversial policies, such as the war in Yemen and his government’s standoff with Qatar.
At least 30 people have been arrested this month, according to Saudi rights activists. Among those detained are prominent human rights activists, religious scholars, writers and academics.
Also under the crown prince’s watch, tensions with Shiite-led Iran have spiked. Minority Saudi Shiites say they have been caught in the political fallout.
Four members of the kingdom’s minority Shiites were executed this year for taking part in violent protests against the government in 2011, during a wave of Arab Spring uprisings that engulfed the region, and more than a dozen others are facing imminent execution . Security forces in May demolished the historic center of a Shiite town where residents have long been demanding equal rights and complaining of discrimination.
CUTTING OFF TIES WITH QATAR
MBS and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed were behind a diplomatic assault on Qatar that began in early June. With backing from Egypt and Bahrain, the quartet of Arab nations unleashed an unprecedented attack on Qatar’s leadership, accusing it of supporting terrorism, backing extremists in the region and plotting unrest throughout the Middle East.
Qatar denies the allegations and says the moves against Doha are politically motivated.
Despite the Saudi and UAE-led blockade, life has not been impacted significantly in Qatar . The dispute has failed to force Qatar to change its policies toward Islamist groups, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE deem a threat to regional stability. Qatar has instead looked to Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s rival Iran for support. The government has also rejected a controversial list of demands that was largely seen as an overreach by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The crisis has frayed age-old ties among citizens in the Gulf and has raised concerns in Washington, where officials say the dispute hurts global efforts to fight the Islamic State group.
BOOSTING US-SAUDI TIES
MBS scored a political coup when he became the first Arab leader to meet with President Donald Trump after his election win.
With Trump fresh in the White House, MBS flew to Washington and met with the new president in March to rekindle U.S.-Saudi ties that had become strained under the Obama administration. Two months later, Trump chose Saudi Arabia has his first country to visit.
Saudi Arabia used Trump’s visit to project its power and reach, organizing a dizzying array of events that included a forum with leaders from dozens of Muslim-majority countries. It was seen as an opportunity for MBS to align U.S. interests with Saudi Arabia’s.
OVERSEEING A DEVASTATING WAR IN YEMEN
In his role of defense minister, MBS has overseen a more than two-year-long war in Yemen that has killed more than 10,000 people in the Arab world’s poorest country, forced Yemen to the brink of famine and sparked the largest cholera outbreak recorded in recent memory in any country in a single year. Rights groups say the Saudi coalition’s airstrikes have killed scores of civilians in what amounts to war crimes.
The war has failed to dislodge Iranian-allied rebels from the capital, Sanaa. Yemen’s Shiite rebels known as Houthis ousted the Saudi-backed government there from power in late 2014. The Yemeni conflict has also drawn widespread condemnation from around the world and has prompted resolutions by Western legislatures to halt arm sales to the kingdom.