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Rise of Saudi prince will sharpen tensions with Iran

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Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman waves as he meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 11, 2017. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout/File

At 31, Mohammed bin Salman has leapfrogged the Saudi king's nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, to become next in line to the throne, by being elevated to the role of crown prince.


The appointment was announced by royal decree just after midnight on Tuesday.

It marks another step in the meteoric rise of the young prince, who is already the world's youngest defence minister, and profoundly changes Saudi Arabia's rules on succession.

"Until this morning [Wednesday] it was supposed to be the king's nephew who was next in line to the throne," Mitchell Belfer, Director of the Euro Gulf Information Centre told RFI by phone.

It will be the first time in the kingdom’s history that the top job has been held by someone other than a son of Saudi Arabia’s founder, Ibn Saud.

"The implications on stability will be huge, especially on the oil markets," says Belfer.

Mohammed bin Salman has been a leading force in overhauling the country's oil-dependent economy away from oil to counter the slump in oil prices.

He plans to sell off part of the vast state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, which would open up shares to the public for the first time.

"Just the worth of the stock is immense," reckons Belfer.

Confrontation with Iran

At the diplomatic level though, bin Salman's appointment has raised concerns of a more aggressive Saudi policy.

“Mohammed bin Salman already a few weeks back was the one who effectively shut the door to rapprochement between Saudi Arabia or the smaller GCC alliance and Iran," Sanam Vakil from the London-based thinktank Chatham House told RFI.

"It seems that the crown prince has a very ambitious regional agenda, moving away from the longstanding Saudi policy of being much more quietist and working behind the scenes. This new prince has taken on a much more assertive regional role.”

That can be seen in Yemen. Bin Salman has been the driving force behind Riyadh's intervention to prop up the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

So far the Saudi military campaign has been inconclusive. With his new powers, bin Salman now cannot afford to lose.

"They’re going to have to win the war. He knows it," says Belfer.

"He steps into such an important role within the hierarchy of the Saudi kingdom and he’s made it his priority to overcome the challenge of the Houthi militias. And the only way to win is through an increase of operations and, frankly, the Saudis are going to have to start using land forces."

Where does that leave Qatar?

As rapid as bin Salman's rise has been since his father came to power in 2015, experts doubt he is likely to have much of an impact on the ongoing blockade of Qatar.

"The problems are just too deep," reckons Belfer.

Analyst David Andrew Weinberg from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in a recent op-ed that these problems stem from how Doha and Riyadh view Iran. The latter is in favour of a soft policy, while the former is more hawkish.

The standoff between the two Gulf Council members has intensified since the May visit by Donald Trump, during which the US president publicly repriotised Riyadh as a regional ally.

"It signalled that Mohammed bin Salman could be more confrontational," says Vakil of Chatham House.

Scott Lucas from Birmingham University says that Trump underestimated the impact of his actions.

"Donald Trump knows next to nothing about the Middle East," he comments. "So he would not have thought about the broader range of considerations here, such as what the Saudi calculations are, such as what the Qataris' calculations are."

It is worth noting that bin Salman was the one behind the Saudi decision to isolate its former ally. Before such a move would have been impossible but now, with the US behind them, the Saudis feel emboldened.

In Riyadh this confidence is being expressed through bin Salman's ambitious development plan, Vision 2030, designed to allow Saudis to become less dependent on its neighbours.

Some commentators warn that this push for greater autonomy could spell the beginning of the end of the GCC.