Early morning on June 21st, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was moved to the position of Crown Prince with a royal decree at the expense of his cousin Mohammad bin Nayef. It means he will inherit his father’s throne after King Salman’s death. To some it may come as a surprise, but Mohammad bin Salman (also known as MBS) was climbing the Saudi power ladder for quite some time.
The 31-year-old had been serving as the Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence since early 2015. The ambitious Prince’s tenure was riddled with controversy. He launched an invasion on Yemen and went on vacation to Maldives immediately after, the recent Qatar blockade has been attributed to him, and he has lowered the impact of religious leaders while improving his relations with Israel.
In retrospect, everything was leading up to this “unexpected“ promotion. Mohammad bin Nayef, ex-Crown Prince, was stripped of his power after a series of decisions from King Salman over the last several months, most notably the abolishment of Bin Nayef’s royal court. MBS ascended the ranks quickly and often used unconventional methods to garner popularity and power.
Mohammad bin Salman’s Interventions and Relations
As mentioned before, he launched an intervention in Yemen after being appointed as Minister of Defence. He had hoped to quickly eliminate the Houthi rebels but the invasion turned out to be a major failure. The war dragged on for 2 years and has created a humanitarian disaster, causing millions of people to be displaced, wide-spread famine, and outbreaks of various diseases. The Saudis have also been accused of committing war crimes in Yemen. And it all started as a mindless decision of a reckless power-hungry Prince.
The Qatar diplomatic crisis started on 5 June 2017 after several Arab nations cut off ties with Qatar for allegedly supporting terrorist organisations and having close relations with Iran.
Qatar was a strong ally to then Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef and was essential to the stability of his position. Bin Nayef had an enemy in the United Arab Emirates – it was Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who happens to be MBS’s mentor and close friend. Naturally, the countries that have been the biggest advocates of the Qatar blockade are Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
It might not be a coincidence that this all happened after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May. It is obvious that he gave his blessings to MBS. A more revealing fact is that the US signed a $110 billion arms deal taking effect immediately. The agreement is actually worth $350 billion over the span of 10 years. That means that Saudi Arabia is bound to continue its friendly policy towards the U.S., and the only man who can guarantee it is the King’s son.
But seeing that MBS has made some reckless and risky decisions, is he really a safe bet for the USA? Before MBS, they had backed Mohammed bin Nayef, who focused on counter-terrorism efforts but has often used it as a pretext to lock up dissidents and activists. To fully understand the US – Saudi relations we have to go back to the very beginning.
History of the U.S. - Saudi Relation
The United States and Saudi Arabia have had a love-hate relationship throughout history. The US officially recognised the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a state in 1931, but didn’t have any interest in the region and they didn’t send an ambassador to Saudi Arabia until 1943. In 1938 the discovery of great oil reserves in Saudi Arabia soon made it a place that deserved great attention from the West. The U.S. was highly dependant of Arab oil during World War II. After World War II, Saudi Arabia took a decisive stance against communism and was seen as an important ally of U.S. during the Cold War.
But things weren’t always so idyllic. In 1973, several Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia imposed an oil embargo on the U.S. because of its support of Israel. It is seen as the lowest point in the U.S.-Saudi relation, alongside the period after 9/11. The embargo was lifted a year later.
Both countries supported anti-communist groups in Afghanistan and cooperated during the Gulf War. However, does two instances surely set the scene for the rise of Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 disaster. It has been confirmed that 15 out of 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, as well as their leader, Osama bin Laden. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has recently been praised by the U.S. and the UK as their ally and an important factor in the war on terror.
With everything in mind, it seems very unlikely that anything will change in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Although MBS comes across as reckless, he has often sought U.S. opinion and it seems they have a strong ally in Mohammad bin Salman. He will be an important asset in the conflict with Iran, and a reminder to others not to do the same mistake as Qatar did.