RIYADH (Reuters) – The young prince named heir to Saudi Arabia’s throne has built a reputation as a bold reformer intent on weaning the kingdom off oil and driving a far more aggressive foreign policy to counter the influence of arch-rival Iran.
Mohammed bin Salman, 31, was appointed crown prince by his father King Salman on Wednesday, replacing his cousin who is 26 years his senior. This made the prince, who already oversaw defense and energy policy, the most powerful figure in the country by some stretch after the octogenarian monarch.
The decision represents a social and cultural sea change, with the ruling baton set to be passed to a much younger generation in a country where patriarchal traditions have long made power the province of the old.
If Mohammed bin Salman becomes king in his 30s, he would be the youngest monarch of the modern state.
The royal decree was a vote of confidence in a man widely lauded by younger Saudis but regarded warily by many older conservatives. He has embraced the media in a distinct departure from the normally secretive Saudi ruling class, with his bearded features rarely off TV screens or street billboards.
His elevation signaled an affirmation of his policies as the blueprint for the future of the Saudi economy, as well as of his more hawkish and interventionist foreign policy.
On the economic front, he has announced sweeping changes labeled Vision 2030 aimed at ending the kingdom’s reliance on oil. As well as diversifying the economy, the plans include pushing for women to have a bigger economic role and the partial privatization of state oil firm Saudi Aramco – reforms that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
The prince’s foreign policy is meanwhile reshaping the kingdom’s role on the regional and global stage.
He is regarded by diplomats and analysts as a prime mover behind the decision to go to war in Yemen and, more recently, to lead Gulf Arab states in severing links with neighboring Qatar.