Questions about Prince Mohammed’s fitness for leadership were raised anew when the government of President Joe Biden released a U.S. intelligence report Feb. 26 assessing that the prince approved the 2018 operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A citizen of Saudi Arabia and critic of its government, Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia has denied that Prince Mohammed had any role in the killing. Under the prince’s leadership, Saudi authorities have cracked down on expressions of dissent. They’ve arrested dozens of clerics, academics, writers and women’s rights activists. In early 2020, authorities detained the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, along with the king’s own brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, and accused them of undermining the state, according to people familiar with the matter. A commission headed by Crown Prince Mohammed spearheaded the arrests in 2017 of more than 100 people, including prominent businessmen and royals, who were forced to hand over billions of dollars to the state in what authorities called an anti-corruption operation. Prince Mohammed has overseen a loosening of some restrictions, including lifting a prohibition on women drivers, introducing public entertainment such as concerts and cinemas, and stripping the religious police of their arrest powers. Those are in line with the government’s plan for the future, Vision 2030, which foresees a more open society and a diversified economy. The latter goal is being financed in part by a partial privatization of the state-owned oil producer Saudi Aramco. In a state where power-sharing among the many princes has been the norm, Prince Mohammed already controls the defense ministry, the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, Aramco and a rejuvenated sovereign wealth fund. He has taken an assertive approach on national security matters. That’s especially the case regarding Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival for power in the region which it’s blamed for attacks on Saudi oil installations that rocked global markets. He’s spearheaded the kingdom’s airstrikes on Yemen since 2015 on behalf of a government ousted by Iran-backed rebels.
After graduating with a law degree from King Saud University in Riyadh and working briefly in government, Prince Mohammed entered politics in 2009. He was an adviser to his father, then the governor of Riyadh province. King Salman ascended to the throne in 2015 and named his favorite son crown prince in June 2017. He stripped the title from Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the country’s prominent anti-terrorism czar, who was fired as interior minister and placed under house arrest. The events unsettled a country accustomed to an image of cohesion within the royal family.
Prince Mohammed’s ambition and monopolization of power have antagonized some members of the royal family. Skeptics worry that he is too inexperienced and willful, and that no one will remain to check his power when many of the state’s seasoned leaders have been moved aside to make way for him. Critics of his policies note that the campaign in Yemen has failed to dislodge the rebels while contributing to what United Nations officials call the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Saudi record on human rights prompted Biden to vow during his election campaign to treat the country like a “pariah.” Since taking office, the Biden administration has moved to “recalibrate” ties with Saudi Arabia by emphasizing outreach to King Salman rather than Prince Mohammed while putting a hold on some key weapons sales to the kingdom. The prince’s supporters see his youth as an advantage in a country in which more than half the citizenry is under age 30. It could give him multiple decades to achieve his ambitious agenda; the seven Saudi kings so far have come to power on average at 64.
• QuickTakes on the strains affecting Saudi Arabia, Saudi Aramco, the killed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the Yemen war.