The naming of 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman as Saudi Arabia's crown prince was more than a power play. It was a seismic generational shift.
For more than half a century, the Saudi throne has been passed down between the increasingly aging sons of state founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud – transferring power between septuagenarians and octogenarians.
But with the naming of 81-year-old King Salman’s son last week as heir to the throne, the Saudi royal family appears set to usher in a new generation of princes and kings they say are more in tune with – and at the age of – their Saudi subjects.
By elevating Mohammed bin Salman, a self-proclaimed economic reformer, the royal family is betting he can modernize a rigid royal palace, identify with the next generation of Saudis, and meet their needs to ensure the House of Saud’s hold on power in increasingly uncertain economic and political times.
"Behind the strong targeting of the youth are quite frankly the issues of regime survival and staving off domestic unrest," says Frederic Wehrey, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East program.
It’s a big ask, however. Considering the wide gap between the entrenched conservative clerics and the desires of younger reformists, the crown prince is likely to disappoint someone. Already, conservatives have resisted subtle social reforms that Prince Mohammed bin Salman is planning to make, even as advocates of reform express dismay they don’t go nearly far enough.
Since his sudden rise to prominence as deputy crown prince in 2015, Mohammed bin Salman, nicknamed “Mr. Everything,” has effectively run Saudi’s foreign and domestic policies for his father, Western diplomats say, pushing Saudi Arabia into aggressive military and diplomatic offenses.
His most public role has been as the architect of the Saudi offensive in Yemen. It was a promised swift strike against Shiite Houthis – seen by the Saudis as Iranian proxies – that has dragged out into a costly war of attrition and one of the world’s largest humanitarian disasters.
But it has been his far-reaching plan to transform the Saudi economy – by weening the country off oil revenues and building a private sector to meet the growing demand for new jobs – that has made the prince the face of Saudi Arabia’s future.
Vision 2030, released last year, aims to raise the private sector’s contribution to the Saudi economy from 40 to 65 percent, increase foreign direct investment from 3.8 to 5.7 percent, sell off stakes in state-owned oil giant Aramco to fund investments abroad, and cut unemployment from 11.6 to 7 percent.
Saudi officials have been eager to play up the crown prince’s ties to the younger generation, which did not live through the excesses of the oil-boom years of the 1970s and early '80s, and is highly educated, well-traveled, and looks at emerging economic powers in the Gulf as models.
More than 70 percent of the Saudi population is under 30. This segment is of particular concern to the Saudi regime, as it cannot provide them the cushy state jobs, free housing, and higher education their parents enjoyed.
"The sense is that the new generation is no longer part of the welfare state their parents joined. How do you reform the economy to accommodate them?" says Carnegie’s Mr. Wehrey.
The crown prince has brought with him a group of young princes, advisers, and non-royal technocrats the regime hopes will bring the kingdom in line with the demands of its young population.
As a replacement for Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince, King Salman named Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, a 33-year-old, as interior minister, the youngest ever to hold the post.
Rift over entertainment
But the crown prince has at times moved too fast, setting up a potential future showdown between the palace and the hard-line religious establishment that the Saudi royals have relied on for legitimacy for more than a century.
His Vision 2030 calls for increasing women’s participation in the labor force from 22 percent to 30 percent, an ambitious target for a country where women face barriers in transportation and free movement.
The prince also has waded into Saudi Arabia’s high-profile ban on women driving, saying the policy is not rooted in religion, as clerics claim, but in society, which may one day change its view.
Yet it is not the empowering of women so much as the young prince’s plans for relaxed guidelines on culture and entertainment that have left clerics in an uproar.
Vision 2030 calls for the establishment of entertainment parks, cultural venues, and social clubs to provide a “variety of cultural activities and entertainment events.” The aim is to double the Saudi household spending on local cultural activities from 2.9 percent to 6 percent of household budgets.
Already, Saudi Arabia has agreed to a preliminary deal with Six Flags to build amusement parks as part of a new “entertainment city” south of Riyadh, while the crown prince has hinted that the country may open cinemas for the very first time.
These steps all come as a shock to a country that only allowed satellite TV in the 1990s. Cinemas have been banned because of the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment’s claim that movies and music are un-Islamic and may have a corrupting influence on society.
There is still firm opposition to loosening restrictions, says Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Washington-based Gulf States Analytics. “Given the positions of certain hardline clerics in the kingdom, this could lead to future clashes,” he says.
In a Foreign Affairs article in January, Mohammed bin Salman, then deputy crown prince, hinted he was prepared to take punitive measures against clerics who opposed his reforms, indicating he had the backing of more than half the religious establishment.
The religious authorities have already seen their power curbed under Mohammed bin Salman’s guidance. In 2016, the Mutawa, or religious police, had their powers to arrest Saudis for violations of Islam revoked – a decision celebrated by Saudis on Twitter to this day.
Elsewhere, however, the prince has proven to be disinterested in democracy or bettering Saudi Arabia's human rights record.
Saudi rights activists have privately criticized his hardline stance against Saudi Arabia's Shiite population and critics of the regime.
The young Saudis the crown prince is courting, particularly those who have studied and worked outside the kingdom, are likely to be disappointed with the prince's refusal to consider basic political openings in the kingdom – such as lifting free speech restrictions.
Yet his greatest challenges may be on the economic front.
The bulk of Saudi youth support development of a larger private sector – but it has yet to create opportunities to ween them off government jobs that Saudi Arabia can no longer afford in the wake of weak oil prices.
And in April, King Salman, facing domestic pressure, was forced to reverse austerity measures and cuts introduced by the young prince, reinstating bonuses and special allowances for civil servants and military personnel – which account for 45 percent of government spending.
Now that Mr. Everything has been elevated to crown prince, and may soon assume the throne, experts say his aspirations for the kingdom will finally be put to the test.
"Now that Mohammed bin Salman has centralized power, he has no impediments in the government or the palace to realize his grand vision," says Gregory Gause, a Saudi expert and chair at the Bush School at Texas A&M University in College Station.
"The goals are there, but now he has to enact the policies – which will prove to be the difficult part.”