Saudi Arabia's Game of Thrones
By Robin Wright
By Robin Wright
In the fractious world of Middle Eastern politics, Mohammed bin Salman is seen either as a long-awaited young reformer shaking up the world’s most autocratic society, or as an impetuous and inexperienced princeling whose rapid rise to power could destabilize Saudi Arabia, the preëminent sheikhdom on the energy-rich Arabian Peninsula. Either way, the thirty-one-year-old is now set to be the kingdom’s next ruler—potentially for the next half century—following an abrupt shakeup in the royal family.
On Wednesday, King Salman, who is eighty-one and frail, ousted his more seasoned heir—a fifty-seven-year-old nephew who crushed Al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia during decades as the counterterrorism tsar—in favor of Prince Mohammed, the monarch’s seventh and favorite son. The sprawling royal family has traditionally shared power among the first generation of sons of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founding father of modern Saudi Arabia. When he died in 1953, he had fathered forty-three sons and even more daughters. Since then, an artful balancing act has distributed politics, privilege, and financial perks among the royal family’s many branches. The arrangement preëmpted serious dissent.
Now, in a royal decree, the king’s move has bypassed his own brothers, hundreds of royals in the second generation who thought that they had a shot at the kingship, and even his own older sons. Prince Mohammed is the youngest heir apparent in Saudi history—by decades. In a country long ruled by men who grew up without air-conditioning or direct-dial phones, the new crown prince talks of growing up playing video games, carries an iPhone, and talks openly about idolizing Steve Jobs.Not everyone is happy.