CAIRO — The surprise dismissal and arrest of dozens of ministers, royals, officials and senior military officers by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is unprecedented in the secretive, 85-year-old kingdom. But so is the by-now virtually unstoppable rise to the throne of a 30-something royal who just three years ago was little known among a cadre of older and more experienced princes.
Founded in 1932 by King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the kingdom has to date had six kings — all of whom are sons of the founding father who died in 1953. None of them took the helm at the vast, oil-rich kingdom before the age of 50. The current monarch, King Salman, was 79 when he came to the throne nearly three years ago.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — whose shock moves on Saturday night pointed to a bold attempt to consolidate his power through purported anti-graft measures — would be the first from his generation to become king, shifting power from the sons of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz, to that of a grandson.
For decades, power has been passed from brother to brother, but Prince Mohammed would inherit the throne from his father. The prince is already also defense minister and oversees all aspects of the country’s economy, planning, reforms and security.
Just a few months ago, his prospects for the throne were less certain.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a seasoned royal, was first in line to the throne. But King Salman ousted him from the line of succession and stripped him of his role as counterterrorism czar and interior minister.
This left the king’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with seemingly few rivals for the throne.
Earlier in his reign, King Salman had removed his half-brother Prince Muqrin from the line of succession. By April 2015, Salman had appointed Prince Mohammed bin Salman as second-in-line to the throne, giving him the title of deputy crown prince, a move that surprised many senior and more experienced members of the ruling family.
In theory, the selection of a crown prince once a new king ascends to the throne has been the duty of the “Allegiance Council,” a body formed in 2007 by the late King Abdullah and made up of the sons and prominent grandsons of the founding King Abdulaziz. However, its role, and how much say it’s had, in the flurry of changes since 2015 has been limited.
Despite some efforts at consensus, Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy where all major decision making rests with the king.
But even if there is disagreement, the royal family has long followed a tradition of speaking with one voice, particularly on issues of succession, in order to appear united in front of Saudi Arabia’s powerful tribes and clergy. The arrests of prominent princes appears to have upended the ways in which the royal family handles internal disputes, but will also spotlight the crown prince as a bold reformer determined to modernize the conservative kingdom that is home to Islam’s holiest shrines.