He has slashed the state budget, frozen government contracts and reduced the pay of civil employees, all part of drastic austerity measures as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is buffeted by low oil prices.
But last year, Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, saw a yacht he couldn’t resist.
While vacationing in the south of France, Salman spotted a 440-foot yacht floating off the coast. He dispatched an aide to buy the ship, the Serene, which was owned by Yuri Shefler, a Russian vodka tycoon. The deal was done within hours, at a price of approximately 500 million euros (roughly $550 million today), according to an associate of Shefler and a Saudi close to the royal family. The Russian moved off the yacht the same day.
It is the paradox of the brash, 31-year-old Salman: a man who is trying to overturn tradition, reinvent the economy and consolidate power — while holding tight to his royal privilege. In less than two years, he has emerged as the most dynamic royal in the Arab world’s wealthiest nation, setting up a potential rivalry for the throne.
He has a hand in nearly all elements of Saudi policy — from a war in Yemen that has cost the kingdom billions of dollars and led to international criticism over civilian deaths, to a push domestically to restrain Saudi Arabia’s free-spending habits and to break its “addiction” to oil. He has begun to loosen social restrictions that grate on young people.
Salman’s rise has shattered decades of tradition in the royal family, where respect for seniority and power-sharing among branches are time-honored traditions. Never before in Saudi history has so much power been wielded by the deputy crown prince, who is second in line to the throne. That centralization of authority has angered many of his relatives.
His seemingly boundless ambitions have led many Saudis and foreign officials to suspect that his ultimate goal is not just to transform the kingdom, but also to shove aside the current crown prince, his 57-year-old cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, to become the next king. Such a move could further upset his relatives and — if successful — give the country what it has never seen: a young king who could rule the kingdom for many decades.
Nayef, the interior minister and longtime counterterrorism czar, has deep ties to Washington and the support of many of the older royals. Deciphering the dynamics of the family can be like trying to navigate a hall of mirrors, but many Saudi and US officials say Salman has made moves aimed at reaching into Nayef’s portfolios and weakening him.
This has left officials in Washington hedging their bets by building relationships with both men, unsure who will end up on top. The White House got an early sign of the ascent of the young prince in late 2015, when — breaking protocol — Salman delivered a soliloquy about the failures of US foreign policy during a meeting between his father, King Salman, and President Barack Obama.
Many young Saudis admire him as an energetic representative of their generation who has addressed some of the country’s problems with uncommon bluntness. The kingdom’s media have built his image as a hardworking, businesslike leader less concerned than his predecessors with the trappings of royalty.
Others see him as a power-hungry upstart who is risking instability by changing too much, too fast.
Months of interviews with Saudi and US officials, members of the royal family and their associates, and diplomats focused on Saudi affairs reveal a portrait of a prince in a hurry to prove that he can transform Saudi Arabia. Salman declined multiple interview requests for this article.
But the question many raise — and cannot yet answer — is whether the energetic leader will succeed in charting a new path for the kingdom, or whether his impulsiveness and inexperience will destabilize the Arab world’s largest economy at a time of turbulence in the Middle East.
Tension at the Top
Early this year, Nayef left the kingdom for his family’s villa in Algeria, a sprawling compound an hour’s drive north of Algiers. Although he has long taken annual hunting vacations there, many who know him said this year was different. He stayed away for weeks, largely incommunicado and often refusing to respond to messages from Saudi officials and close associates in Washington. Even John Brennan, the CIA director, whom he has known for decades, had difficulty reaching him.
The crown prince has diabetes, and suffers from the lingering effects of an assassination attempt in 2009 by a jihadi who detonated a bomb he had hidden in his rectum.
But his lengthy absence at a time of low oil prices, turmoil in the Middle East and a foundering Saudi-led war in Yemen led several US officials to conclude that the crown prince was fleeing frictions with his younger cousin and that the prince was worried his chance to ascend the throne was in jeopardy.
Since King Salman ascended to the throne in January 2015, new powers had been flowing to his son, some of them undermining the authority of the crown prince. King Salman collapsed the crown prince’s court into his own, giving Deputy Crown Prince bin Salman control over access to the king. Deputy Crown Prince bin Salman also hastily announced the formation of a military alliance of Islamic countries to fight terrorism. Counterterrorism had long been the domain of Nayef, but the new plan gave no role to him or his powerful Interior Ministry.
The exact personal relationship between the two men is unclear, fueling discussion in Saudi Arabia and foreign capitals about who is ascendant. Obscuring the picture are the stark differences in the men’s public profiles. Nayef has largely stayed in the shadows, although he did visit New York last month to address the UN General Assembly before heading to Turkey for a state visit.
His younger cousin, meanwhile, has worked to remain in the spotlight, touring world capitals, speaking with foreign journalists, being photographed with Facebook Chairman Mark Zuckerberg and presenting himself as a face of a new Saudi Arabia.
“There is no topic that is more important than succession matters, especially now,” said Joseph A Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who has extensive contacts in the Saudi royal family. “This matters for monarchy, for the regional allies and for the kingdom’s international partners.”
Among the most concrete initiatives of Salman, who is defense minister, is the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which since it was begun last year has failed to dislodge the Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies from the Yemeni capital. The war has driven much of Yemen toward famine and killed thousands of civilians while costing the Saudi government tens of billions of dollars.
The prosecution of the war by a prince with no military experience has exacerbated tensions between him and his older cousins, according to US officials and members of the royal family. Three of Saudi Arabia’s main security services are run by princes. Although all agreed that the kingdom had to respond when the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital and forced the government into exile, Salman took the lead, launching the war in March 2015 without full coordination across the security services.
The head of the national guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, had not been informed and was out of the country when the first strikes were carried out, according to a senior national guard officer.
The national guard is now holding much of the Yemeni border.
US officials, too, were put off when, just as the Yemen campaign was escalating, Salman took a vacation in the Maldives, the island archipelago off the coast of India. Several US officials said Defense Secretary Ash Carter had trouble reaching him for days during one part of the trip.
The prolonged war has also heightened tensions between Salman and Nayef, who won the respect of Saudis and US officials for dismantling al-Qaida in the kingdom nearly a decade ago and now sees it taking advantage of chaos in Yemen, according to several US officials and analysts.
“If Mohammed bin Nayef wanted to be seen as a big supporter of this war, he’s had a year and a half to do it,” said Bruce Riedel, a former Middle East analyst at the CIA and a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Near the start of the war, Salman was a forceful public advocate for the campaign and was often photographed visiting troops and meeting with military leaders. But as the campaign has stalemated, such appearances have grown rare.
The war underlines the plans of Salman for a brawny foreign policy for the kingdom, one less reliant on Western powers like the United States for its security. He has criticized the thawing of America’s relations with Iran and comments by Obama during an interview this year that Saudi Arabia must “share the neighborhood” with Iran.
This is part of what analysts say is Salman’s attempt to foster a sense of Saudi national identity that has not existed since the kingdom’s founding in 1932.
“There has been a surge of Saudi nationalism since the campaign in Yemen began, with the sense that Saudi Arabia is taking independent collective action,” said Andrew Bowen, a Saudi expert at the Wilson Center in Washington.
Still, Bowen said support among younger Saudis could diminish the longer the conflict dragged on. Diplomats say the death toll for Saudi troops is higher than the government has publicly acknowledged, and a recent deadly airstrike on a funeral in the Yemeni capital has renewed calls by human rights groups and some US lawmakers to block or delay weapons sales to the kingdom.
People who have met Salman said he insisted that Saudi Arabia must be more assertive in shaping events in the Middle East and confronting Iran’s influence in the region — whether in Yemen, Syria, Iraq or Lebanon.
“His main message is that Saudi Arabia is a force to be reckoned with,” Katulis said.
A swift ascent
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies, which means that Salman was given all of his powers by a vote of one: his father.
The prince’s rise began in early 2015, after King Abdullah died of lung cancer and King Salman ascended to the throne. In a series of royal decrees, the new king restructured the government and shook up the order of succession in the royal family in ways that invested tremendous power in his son.
He was named defense minister and head of a powerful new council to oversee the Saudi economy and put in charge of the governing body of the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., the state oil company and the primary engine of the Saudi economy.
More important, the king decreed a new order of succession, overturning the wishes of King Abdullah and replacing his designated crown prince, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, with Nayef.
While all previous Saudi kings and crown princes had been sons of the kingdom’s founder, Nayef was the first of the founder’s grandsons to be put in line. Many hailed the move because of the prince’s success at fighting al-Qaida and because he has only daughters, leading many to hope he would choose a successor based on merit rather than paternity.
The bigger surprise was that the king named Prince Salman deputy crown prince. He was 29 years old at the time and virtually unknown to the kingdom’s closest allies.
This effectively scrapped the political aspirations of his older relatives, many of whom had decades of experience in public life and in key sectors like defense and oil policy. Some are still angry — although only in private, out of deference to the 80-year-old king.
Since then, Mohammed bin Salman has moved quickly to build his public profile and market himself to other nations as the point man for the kingdom.
Domestically, his focus has been on an ambitious plan for the future of the kingdom, called Vision 2030. The plan, released in April, seeks to transform Saudi life by diversifying its economy away from oil, increasing Saudi employment and improving education, health and other government services. A National Transformation Plan, laying out targets for improving government ministries, came shortly after.
Read in one way, the documents are an ambitious blueprint to change the Saudi way of life. Read in another, they are a scathing indictment of how poorly the kingdom has been run by Salman’s elders.
Official government development plans going back decades have called for reducing the dependence on oil and increasing Saudi employment — to little effect. And in calling for transparency and accountability, the plan acknowledges that both have been in short supply. Diplomats and economists say much about the Saudi economy remains opaque, including the cost of generous perks and stipends for members of the royal family.
The need for change is greater now, with global oil prices less than half of what they were in 2014 and hundreds of thousands of young Saudis entering the job market yearly. Salman has called for a new era of fiscal responsibility, and over the past year, fuel, water and electricity prices have gone up while the take-home pay of some public sector employees has been cut — squeezing the budgets of average Saudis. He has also said the government will sell shares of Saudi Aramco, believed to be the world’s most valuable company.
Many Saudis say his age and ambition are benefits at a time when old ways of thinking must be changed.
“He is speaking in the language of the youth,” said Hoda al-Helaissi, a member of the kingdom’s advisory Shura Council, which is appointed by the king. “The country for too long has been looking through the lenses of the older generation, and we need to look at who is going to carry the torch to the next generation.”
Some of his initiatives have appeared ham-handed. In December, he held his first news conference to announce the formation of a military alliance of Islamic countries to fight terrorism. But a number of countries that he said were involved soon responded that they knew nothing about it or were still waiting for information before deciding whether to join.
Others have been popular. After Salman called for more entertainment options for families and young people, who often flee the country on their vacations, the Cabinet passed regulations restricting the powers of the religious police. An Entertainment Authority he established has planned its first activities, which include comedy shows, pro wrestling events and monster truck rallies.
The prince has kept his distance from the Council of Senior Scholars, the mostly elderly clerics who set official religious policy and often release religious opinions that young Saudis mock as being out of touch with modern life.
Instead, he has sought the favor of younger clerics who boast millions of followers on social media. After the release of Vision 2030, Salman held a reception for Saudi journalists and academics that included a number of younger, tech-savvy clerics who have gone forth to praise the plan.
Salman’s prominence today was difficult to predict during his early years, spent largely below the radar of Western officials who keep track of young Saudi royals who might one day rule the kingdom.
Several of King Salman’s other sons, who studied overseas to perfect foreign languages and earn advanced degrees, built impressive resumes. One became the first Arab astronaut, another a deputy oil minister, yet another the governor of Medina province.
Mohammed bin Salman stayed in Saudi Arabia and does not speak fluent English, although he appears to understand it. After a private school education, he studied law at King Saud University in Riyadh, reportedly graduating fourth in his class. Another prince of the same generation said he had gotten to know him during high school, when one of their uncles hosted regular dinners for the younger princes at his palace. He recalled Salman being one of the crowd, saying he liked to play bridge and admired Margaret Thatcher.
King Salman is said to see himself in his favorite son, the latest in the lineage of a family that has ruled most of the Arabian Peninsula for eight decades.
In 2007, when the US ambassador dropped in on King Salman, then a prince and the governor of Riyadh province, to say farewell at the end of his posting, the governor asked for help circumventing America’s stringent visa procedures. His wife could not get a visa to see her doctor, and although his other children were willing to submit to the visa hurdles, “his son, Prince Mohammed, refused to go to the US Embassy to be fingerprinted ‘like some criminal,'” according to a State Department cable at the time.
Mohammed bin Salman graduated from the university that year and continued to work for his father, who was named defense minister in 2011, while dabbling in real estate and business.
Many members of the royal family remain wary of the young prince’s projects and ultimate ambitions. Some mock him as the “Prince of the Vision” and complain about his army of well-paid foreign consultants and image-makers.
Other are annoyed by the media cell he created inside the royal court to promote his initiatives, both foreign and domestic. Called the Center for Studies and Media Affairs, the group has focused on promoting a positive story about the Yemen war in Washington and has hired numerous Washington lobbying and public affairs firms to assist in the effort.
Inside the kingdom, the government has largely succeeded in keeping criticism — and even open discussion — of the prince and his projects out of the public sphere. His family holds sway over the parent company of many Saudi newspapers, which have breathlessly covered his initiatives, and prominent Saudi editors and journalists who have accompanied him on foreign trips have been given up to $100,000 in cash, according to two people who have traveled with the prince’s delegation.
Meanwhile, Saudi journalists deemed too critical have been quietly silenced through phone calls informing them that they are barred from publishing, and sometimes from traveling abroad.
In June, a Saudi journalist, Sultan al-Saad al-Qahtani, published an article in Arabic on his website, The Riyadh Post, in which he addressed the lack of discussion about Salman’s rise.
“You can buy tens of newspapers and hundreds of journalists, but you can’t buy the history that will be written about you,” he wrote.
He said the prince’s popularity among Saudis was based on a “sweeping desire for great change” and they loved him based on the hope that he would “turn their dreams into reality.”
In that lay the risk, al-Qahtani wrote: “If you fail, this love withers quickly, as if it never existed, and is replaced by a deep feeling of frustration and hatred.”
The site was blocked the next day, al-Qahtani said, for the third time in 13 months. (It is now back up, at a new address.)
As sweeping and long-term as Salman’s initiatives are, they may hang by the tenuous thread of his link to his father, who has memory lapses, according to foreign officials who have met with him. Even the prince’s supporters acknowledge that they are not sure he will retain his current roles after his father dies.
In the meantime, he is racing against time to establish his reputation and cement his place in the kingdom’s power structure.
His fast ascent, and his well-publicized foreign trips to Washington, Europe the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia, have led senior Obama administration officials to consider the prospect that he could step over Nayef and become Saudi Arabia’s next king.
This has led to a balancing act for US officials who want to build a relationship with him while not being used as leverage in any rivalry with Nayef. Obama administration officials say relations with Salman have generally improved, but only after a rocky start when he would routinely lecture senior Americans — even the president.
In November, during a Group of 20 summit meeting at a luxury resort on the Turkish coast, Salman gave what US officials described as a lengthy speech about what he saw as the failure of US foreign policy in the Middle East — from the Obama administration’s restraint in Syria to its efforts to improve relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s bitter enemy.
Personal relationships have long been the bedrock of American-Saudi relations, yet the Obama administration has struggled to find someone to develop a rapport with the prince. The job has largely fallen to Secretary of State John Kerry, who has hosted the prince several times at his Georgetown home in Washington. In June, the two men shared an iftar dinner, breaking the Ramadan fast. In September 2015, dinner at Kerry’s house ended with Salman playing Beethoven on the piano for the secretary of state and the other guests.
In May, the prince invited Kerry for a meeting on the Serene, the luxury yacht he bought from the Russian billionaire.
His desire to re-imagine the Saudi state is reflected in his admiration — some even call it envy — for the kingdom’s more modern and progressive neighbor in the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates.
He has influential supporters in this effort, particularly the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who for more than a year has been promoting Salman in the Middle East and Washington.
Zayed, the United Arab Emirates’ de facto ruler, is a favorite among Obama administration officials, who view him as a reliable ally and a respected voice in the Sunni world. But he also has a history of personal antipathy toward Nayef, adding a particular urgency to his support for the chief rival of the Saudi crown prince.
In April 2015, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, led a small delegation of top White House officials to visit Zayed at his home in McLean, Virginia. During the meeting, according to several officials who attended, the prince urged the Americans to develop a relationship with Salman.
But all questions about Salman’s future are likely to depend on how long his father lives, according to diplomats who track Saudi Arabia.
If he died soon, Nayef would become king and could dismiss his younger cousin as a gesture to his fellow royals. In fact, it was King Salman who set the precedent for such moves by dismissing the crown prince named by his predecessor.
“If the king’s health starts to deteriorate, Mohammed bin Salman is very likely to try to get Mohammed bin Nayef out of the picture,” said Riedel, the former CIA analyst.
But the longer King Salman reigns, foreign officials said, the longer the young prince has to consolidate his power — or to convince Nayef that he is worth keeping around if Nayef becomes king.Most Saudi watchers do not expect any struggles within the family to spill into the open, as all the royals understand how much they have to lose from such fissures becoming public or destabilizing their grip on the kingdom.
“Not a single member of the family will do anything to hurt the family.”