The naming of Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince in Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud signals an important milestone in the kingdom’s domestic and foreign policies. With the ascension of Abdullah’s half brother Salman to the throne, while having Abdullah’s half brother Muqrin as crown prince, bin Nayef’s new position means that he is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
Since assuming his role in 2005, King Abdullah led an activist foreign policy for the kingdom, resurrecting Saudi engagement in the affairs of other Arab states and standing up to an increasingly influential Iran. The new Saudi King Salman, who is much more conservative than his late sibling, is one of the “Sudairi seven”—half brothers of Abdullah whom he had sought to weaken politically in his bid to consolidate power within his own descendants. Salman suffers from poor health, and his prospects for leading Saudi Arabia were often regarded as slim, giving Abdullah an opportunity to appoint his younger half brother Muqrin—widely seen as a neutral candidate—as deputy crown prince. While it may have been possible that succession went straight to Murqin instead of Salman because of the latter’s health, Salman has support from his fellow Sudairi descendants, who have insisted on his assumption of the title of king, which would give them access to power by enabling them to select his deputy crown prince.
The Sudairis have achieved their goal. The new deputy crown prince, the Minister of Interior Mohammed bin Nayef, is the son of one of the Sudairis. King Abdullah had handed over the Syrian file to him in 2014 following the failure of the Syria strategy that had, until then, been set by Prince Bandar bin Sultan and was focused on supporting jihadists in a bid to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. The raised profile of Mohammed bin Nayef, coupled with his popularity among many Saudi tribes, bolstered his chances of becoming deputy crown prince.
Mohammed Bin Nayef has taken some bold steps in his capacity as the strategist on Syria. Having spearheaded Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization and terrorist rehabilitation programs, he has been working to present the kingdom as a leader on counterterrorism, especially in light of the thousands of Saudi nationals who are currently fighting in Syria, and whose return to the kingdom would pose a serious challenge to Gulf security. He has also increased support for the Southern Front coalition of the Free Syrian Army—a rebel group backed by the West and Gulf countries—at the expense of supporting the Syrian National Coalition abroad. This recent change of direction is likely to yield more results for Saudi Arabia than previous endeavors by Prince Bandar. A Saudi solution for Syria, therefore, means having in place a transitional government that is both credible on the ground and that is responsive to Saudi interests. Mohammed Bin Nayef has been courting the United States to get support for this approach, and has been working on improving U.S.-Saudi relations following a period of relative decline. This has translated into the kingdom becoming the most prominent Arab partner in the U.S.-led coalition set up to fight the Islamic State.
The deputy crown prince is also a pragmatist. Despite its mistrust of Tehran, Saudi Arabia has learned that Iran’s influence in the region is a reality that cannot be easily undone. This has led the kingdom to act pragmatically in Iraq and Yemen. It supported the Iranian-blessed change of government (from former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi) in the first, and kept communication channels open with Iran’s Houthi allies in the second, despite public condemnation of the Houthi takeover in Sanaa. The rise of the Islamic State in Syria as a common enemy for Saudi Arabia and Iran is likely to continue to push Riyadh to reach some form of compromise with Tehran further down the line, which would have a calming impact on countries like Lebanon, where the current political stalemate is a byproduct of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. With Salman’s health concerns (and reported dementia) and Muqrin’s neutrality, it has become clear that the major force behind the recent changes in Saudi policy, Mohammed bin Nayef, is the one to determine what Saudi Arabia does next in the Middle East.
The current Saudi succession from Abdullah to Salman is therefore crucial not because of what Salman or Muqrin will do, but because of who is really going to set the tone for Saudi Arabian foreign policy. We can expect Saudi Arabia to continue along the path it has been following in the last twelve months, but it can now do it more boldly because Mohammed bin Nayef has succeeded in formalizing his influence.