Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has replaced Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef with his favored son Mohammed bin Salman, overturning the established succession order to ease his son’s path to the throne.
Mohammed bin Nayef was stripped of his role as heir apparent and removed from his post as interior minister, where he oversaw domestic security and counter-terrorism policy.
The radical shift in royal succession, made by royal decrees issued on Wednesday, completes the elevation of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, architect of the oil-rich kingdom’s ambitious economic reform plans and increasingly interventionist foreign policy.
Speculation has swirled over the past two years that the elderly king would promote his 31-year-old son so that he could inherit the throne directly, rather than working under Mohammed bin Nayef.
The turnover at the top of the royal family was made by a majority decision of 31 of 34 members of the kingdom’s allegiance council, a royal body set up to oversee succession, the official news agency reported.
The move nonetheless risks division within the ranks of the ruling Al Saud given private concerns among some family members about the meteoric rise of the energetic but inexperienced young Prince Mohammed, known widely as MbS.
King Salman called for loyalty to be pledged to the new crown prince at a royal palace in Mecca after evening prayers on Wednesday.
A close adviser to his father for years, he rose to further prominence when his father removed deputy crown prince Muqrin after only three months in the position following the death of King Abdullah in January 2015.
Prince Mohammed’s promotion extends his already significant powers on domestic and foreign policy.
He has been primarily tasked with diversifying the oil-dependent economy through radical initiatives such as the part-privatisation of state oil group Saudi Aramco, curbing subsidies and reining in the generous welfare system.
The 2014 oil price crash has cut government revenues, sending the economy to the brink of recession as spending seized up and the state had to borrow internationally and burn though cash reserves to cover budget deficits.
The young prince, who is promoting a gradualist approach to social change, has curbed the powers of the feared religious police who enforce strict segregation and public religiosity in the conservative country. Looking for further appeal among the kingdom’s large youth population, he has also sought to promote entertainment options such as music concerts.
As defence minister he played a key role in launching the damaging Yemeni war against Shia Houthi rebels and is also building a Sunni-led military coalition to confront Shia Iran, which Saudi Arabia accuses of interference in the Arab world.
Mohammed bin Nayef, valued by the US as a close partner in counter-terrorism operations, had appeared increasingly isolated as crown prince, with diplomats reporting on tensions between the two cousins.
Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef has been appointed the new interior minister — a vital position given the domestic threat from Sunni jihadist groups such as Isis.
Mohammed bin Salman has developed a close relationship to President Donald Trump and members of his family and administration, welcoming President Trump to Riyadh for his first overseas visit in May.
After securing the president’s criticism of Iran’s role in the region, Saudi Arabia earlier this month launched an economic embargo against Qatar alongside its Gulf allies, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as Arab power Egypt.
The hard line on Qatar, which they accuse of supporting terrorism and cosying up to Iran, has divided opinion in the US administration, which is concerned about terror-finance but also wants to foster unity among its allies to battle Sunni jihadist terrorists such as Isis.