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Story Publication logo July 14, 2015

Where Does the Iran Deal Leave Saudi Arabia?

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Saudi Arabia's King Salman has been on the throne since January 2015, but already has signaled...

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Image by Getty Images, via Politico Magazine.

When Saudi Arabia's long-serving foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, died late last week, an era of quiet Saudi foreign policy may have passed with him. The kingdom's envoy for 40 years, Prince Saud believed Saudi influence was best wielded discreetly—he was always there, working behind the scenes.

Today, however, the mute button is off. Backed by a new generation of young Saudis, the kingdom has lately taken a more aggressive approach to foreign policy—not mincing words, not afraid to undertake its own military adventures and not waiting for U.S. approval. It's an impulse that's expected to intensify in the wake of the nuclear deal reached Tuesday between Saudi Arabia's strongest ally, the United States, and its fiercest regional rival, Iran. Riyadh is likely to welcome the agreement cautiously (as it did a framework agreement in April)—but its actions may well indicate the opposite. The Saudis fear that lifting economic and arms sanctions on Iran could embolden their rival, perhaps even shifting the balance of power in the Middle East in Tehran's favor. That's a recalibration Saudi Arabia had already sought to redress even before the deal was announced, taking on Iran's allies from Yemen to Iraq to Syria. "We are determined that Iran should not have a negative intervention in the region or in Arab countries," foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said earlier this month.

Perhaps no one better exemplifies this bolder approach than a powerful, if little known, member of the royal family whose quick rise could hint at what's to come for Saudi Arabia: Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As Saudi leaders were awaiting the conclusion of the Iran deal, Prince Mohammed visited a U.S. warship in the Gulf, right across from Iran, in a show of Saudi strength. The prince, who is also defense minister, has meanwhile pressed on with a campaign of airstrikes against Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen, despite international pressure for a ceasefire. And he has led recent delegations to France and Russia to discuss nuclear energy, including signing a letter of intent allowing the French to study the feasibility of building two nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia—a sign that while Washington cozies up to Tehran, the Saudis just might go nuclear.

Who is the prince who has become the face of this new Saudi assertiveness? Since his father, King Salman, took the throne in January, Mohammed, believed to be just 29, has amassed a political portfolio larger than any Saudi prince in recent memory, making him one of the most influential rulers in Riyadh. As overseer of all ministers dealing with the economy, the prince chairs the board of the state oil company, Aramco—perhaps the largest swing vote in the global hydrocarbon economy. As defense minister, he is the orchestrator of the Saudi military campaign in Yemen and in charge of the kingdom's role in the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State (ISIL) coalition.

Despite this vast power—and all the resources that intelligence services and analysts devote to studying the interworking of the Al Saud family—little is known about Mohammed among foreign governments, diplomats, academics and journalists. That's true within the Saudi kingdom too, where perhaps even more is at stake for the young prince: Two-thirds of Saudis—some 13 million people—are now under the age of 30, and nearly a third of Saudis aged 16 to 29 are unemployed. Thanks to a heavy investment in higher education in recent years—the government has built 36 universities in the past 20 years and sent hundreds of thousands of Saudis to study abroad—an estimated 1.9 million diploma-wielding Saudis will be looking for jobs in the next decade. The government today employs four out of five Saudi workers but cannot possibly absorb the coming influx. Saudi youth worry too about the rising costs of living, the high price of housing and a small but persistent wave of crime, a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group found.

Washington has long appreciated Riyadh as a bulwark of stability in a turbulent Middle East, but that stability depends on how the homegrown challenges of youth are addressed—or aren't. Unlike their parents, who remember unpaved roads and Bedouin villages, this generation of Saudis grew up in the comfort of oil wealth, watching skyscrapers and infrastructure rise up from the desert. They want their well-endowed country to play a bigger role on the international stage and provide more government support at home. "The legitimacy of the government has changed, from the traditional religious legitimacy—which is still important—to now being based on providing society with security and services," says Mark C. Thompson, assistant professor of Middle East Studies at King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals in Dhahran Saudi Arabia, who studies Saudi youth. "This is fundamental change."

Which many Saudi Arabia watchers say is where Prince Mohammed comes in, as the first influential royal from the same generation most expectant of his help. "We need someone close in age [to the youth] to be able to understand and translate their expectations," says Hayat Al Sindi, a member of the government's advisory parliament, the Shura Council. Mohammed, in her view, "is like a new hope for how to accommodate the mentality of progress." Yet such high expectations mean the young prince will be closely watched by Saudi youth, who already follow his every action on Twitter and opine over coffee about the government's latest plans—and whether they can deliver.


The first indication of Prince Mohammed's new power came in January, when the new 79-year-old King Salman named his son head of the royal court. That position has been likened to a prime minister and was previously held by a non-royal in his 70s. Mohammed was also made defense minister, a title usually reserved for the crown prince, then the 69-year-old Prince Muqrin. Just months later, Muqrin resigned his post, and the deputy crown prince, 55-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef, rose to fill it. Mohammed bin Salman was promoted to deputy crown prince, the youngest person ever to hold the title. He also heads the newly formed Council of Economic and Development Affairs, to which 22 of Saudi Arabia's 31 ministers must answer. The trickiest questions about jobs, housing and daily life will be answered here.

The favorite son of King Salman, Prince Mohammed graduated from King Saud University with a bachelor's degree in law and had worked in his father's office as an adviser since 2009. Salman was governor of Riyadh at the time, a position he held for 48 years with a reputation for rigid but effective management. When Salman became crown prince in 2011, Mohammed went with him, again as a top adviser. "His father taught him about politics, and they are very close," says Maj. Gen. Anwar Eshki, chairman of the Jeddah-based think tank the Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies and a former adviser to the Saudi Council of Ministers, an equivalent to the U.S. Cabinet.

Much of what is known about Mohammed stems from what he hasn't been seen to do. "He never drinks, never smokes, never takes a vacation," says Abdullah Al-Shammri, a former Saudi diplomat with close ties to the royal family. "Most princes, we see them go on extravagant holidays. But Mohammed bin Salman feels more at home in Saudi—not one to go to a beach on Belize or sip a cappuccino in Milan." Indeed, behind the scenes, Prince Mohammed has won respect within the royal family for his work ethic. He is known to "stay in the office very late at night and leave only around 12 a.m.," says Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, a member of the royal family and chairman of the firm Shamal Investments. "He is very hard-working and intense, but he doesn't have an intrusive management style. He likes people to tell him what they need—and then they have to perform."

Saudi watchers also take signals about Prince Mohammed from the people orbiting him within the government. Several new cabinet appointments are thought to be his choices, including the education minister, Azzam Al-Dakheel, a businessman and former director of the prince's foundation. A social media-savvy technocrat—he is on LinkedIn and has his own website—Al-Dakheel published two books analyzing education policy in the 18 months before his appointment.

Not everyone is so confident the prince's promotion was warranted. "There is a clear feeling among many Saudis that it's inappropriate for Mohammed bin Salman to have risen so quickly and take on such a large role. Senior Saudis are worried about what this says about King Salman's judgment," one economic analyst working on Saudi Arabia told me. Many of the critiques of Mohammed align with common complaints about youth: Some businessmen here say he has a reputation for being short-tempered and making rash decisions.

Women's rights advocates are also nervous that the tepid reforms of the previous king, Abdullah, could stall under Salman, and by extension, his son Mohammed, both of whom have closer ties to the clerical elite than the late king. The former monarch opened up women's universities and expanded the fields in which females are permitted to work; he curtailed the religious police, who had gained a reputation for overzealously cracking down on moral offenses such as gender mixing. King Salman, however, named a new, more conservative chief to the religious police. He relieved the only female minister of her duty in April, though she was believed to be suffering from chronic illness.

"I'm worried," says one young female college graduate in Riyadh who recently returned home from studying in the United States. "I don't think we can go backwards, but it's hard to imagine things will improve for women."


Overseas, more immediate challenges are shaping Mohammed's reputation. Saudi Arabia has been among the most critical U.S. regional allies of an Iranian nuclear deal. In talks at the White House and then Camp David last month, President Barack Obama tried to reassure Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Nayef that an agreement wouldn't come at Gulf allies' expense. Obama was also expected to call King Salman on Tuesday after the deal was announced.

Saudi policymakers appear unconvinced, however, continuing to argue that a deal will only embolden what they see as Tehran's regional meddling. Iran today backs a gaggle of enemies of the Saudi regime, from the Syrian government of Bashar Al Assad to Shiite militias in Iraq to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The new generation of Saudi leaders may not wait for Washington's approval before moving forward with a counter-offensive of its own. One example came in mid-June, when Mohammed reportedly brought up the Iran nuclear talks with Putin during his visit to Russia. Moscow, a member of the P5+1 negotiating with Tehran.

The Russia visit "suggests that Prince Mohammed is positioning himself as more independent than other members of the Saudi national security team who are pro-American," wrote Bruce Reidel, director of the intelligence program at the Brookings Institution. "The royal family is disillusioned with President Obama and his policies in the region. Becoming the advocate of diversifying Saudi interests beyond the United States is a popular move for Prince Mohammed to make."

Consider, also, Saudi Arabia's more than three-month military operation in Yemen, aimed at unseating Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. In Washington, the campaign looks risky for a prince so early in his career. After more than two months of bombing, the Houthis have actually gained ground in some areas. Al Qaeda has taken advantage of the chaos to seize new territory, including a port and airport. Acrimonious United Nations-brokered talks in June in Geneva ended without progress, even as the humanitarian toll grows.

Yet inside the kingdom, the Yemen operation has been widely popular among the younger demographic. In interviews and on social media, many here say that they have tired of watching regional rival Iran have the military upper hand. Riyadh has been buying the best American jets, bombs and missiles since the 1980s. Now is the time to assert regional authority, many youth told me. "We are much more capable than people give us credit for," says Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. "We can hold our own in the region if we need to."

Mohammed and the new cabinet have had other quick wins at home too, consolidating their domestic support. To cheers on social media, the royal court recently sacked the underperforming health minister and two of his deputies, appointing a former Aramco CEO to the post instead. A protocol minister caught on YouTube slapping a member of the press corps was swiftly relieved of his duties on May 5. In March, Mohammed's Council of Economic and Development Affairs promised to tax so-called "white land"—undeveloped land owned by royals who haven't yet released it for building projects—in a bid to lower housing prices, a key youth demand; the lack of free space in the country has pushed up home prices to roughly eight times the average annual salary, according to the BCG survey. A bill is now being drafted to put a cost on unused plots. And on July 13, the Saudi king named a new housing minister, Majid bin Abdullah bin Hamad al-Hugail, who analysts say is close to the prince.

Such highly visible moves have raised the bar for the cabinet, says Abeer Alarjani, a research associate at the Center for Innovative Government, a think tank that advises several ministries. "Every minister is now planning, I'm sure, quick wins for the next six months."

But governing may get harder, not easier, for Mohammed as time goes on. Firing poor-performers in government, for example, will rock the largest patronage network in the country. Details about how to tax royal land have yet to be worked out and will require deft behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the family. Abroad, the conflict in Yemen could simmer, leaving the kingdom to pay for reconstruction costs for years. Not to mention the matter the Saudis now being at odds with the United States over Iran.

"Breaking from tradition tends to be met with a lot of fear that values are being lost." says Prince Faisal bin Saud bin Abdulmohsen, director of cultural affairs at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. "The younger generation will be met with great resistance, and they need to accept that and deal with that."

Yet with Saudi Arabia's succession now set for perhaps the next 50 years, few opportunities like this one are likely to come again soon. Not this generation, at least. And Washington will want to know what kind of future the kingdom has ahead.

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