Saudi Arabia is a country attempting to change as it moves away from being so reliant on oil revenues. The country has traditionally been very conservative in its outlook but a new generation of leaders is looking to transform the country.
The tensions unsettling the Saudi royal family became clear in September, when Joseph Westphal, the U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, flew to Jiddah to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, nominally the heir to the throne. But when he arrived, he was told that the deputy crown prince, a brash 30-year-old named Mohammed bin Salman, wanted to see him urgently.
The ambassador was redirected. The United States and the crown prince swallowed the embarrassment.
Palace intrigue is a staple of monarchies, but it is impossible to overstate how out of character such a generational power play was for the desert kingdom. Robert Lacey, in his classic 1981 book, “The Kingdom,” described the tradition of deference that has held the Saudi royal family together through feast and famine: “Deference to elders is one of the Al-Saud’s inviolable ground rules, the best corset they know to discipline the outward thrust of so many assembled appetites.”
Not anymore: Starting in January 2015 with the accession of King Salman, Saudi Arabia has been shaken by the bold reform campaign of his son, known at home and abroad by his initials, MBS. By outmaneuvering and sometimes defying his elders, the young deputy crown prince has turned the politics of this conservative, sometimes sclerotic monarchy upside down.
MBS is the kind of prince that Machiavelli might conjure. He’s a big, fast-talking young man who dominates a room with the raw, instinctive energy of a natural leader. But his hardball tactics have offended some Saudis — especially his rebuffs of Mohammed bin Nayef, his elder at 56 and his nominal superior. In addition to detouring the U.S. ambassador, MBS is said to have engineered the firing of the crown prince’s closest aide in September.