RIYADH, Saudi Arabia —
Until about four months ago, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 29, was just another Saudi royal who dabbled in stocks and real estate.
He grew up overshadowed by three older half brothers who were among the most accomplished princes in the kingdom — the first Arab astronaut; an Oxford-educated political scientist who was once a research fellow at Georgetown and also founded a major investment company; and a highly regarded deputy oil minister.
But that was before their father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, 79, ascended to the throne.
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Now Prince Mohammed has swiftly accumulated more power than any prince has ever held, upending a longstanding system of distributing positions around the royal family to help preserve its unity, and he has used his growing influence to take a leading role in Saudi Arabia’s newly assertive stance in the region, including its military intervention in Yemen.
In the four months since his coronation, King Salman has put Prince Mohammed in charge of the state oil monopoly, the public investment company, economic policy and the Defense Ministry.
He is the most visible leader of Saudi Arabia’s 2-month-old air war in Yemen, and his father has installed him as deputy crown prince, passing over dozens of older princes to put him second in line to the throne. Stunning the kingdom, King Salman removed his younger half brother, Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz, 69, as crown prince and replaced him with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, the popular interior minister. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Salman’s nephew, has no male heirs of his own, and Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is now next in line.
The sweeping changes have thrust the young prince into power at a time when Saudi Arabia is locked in a series of escalating conflicts aimed at defending its vision of the regional order and holding back its chief rival, Iran.
The kingdom is financially sustaining the rulers of Egypt and Jordan and propping up the Sunni monarchy in neighboring Bahrain against a revolt by its Shiite majority. It is also arming rebels in Syria against the Iranian-backed president, fighting in the U.S.-led air campaign over Iraq and leading its own air assault on an Iranian-backed faction in Yemen. And it is ramping up its military spending even as plunging oil prices and growing domestic expenditures have reduced its financial reserves by $50 billion over the last six months, to less than $700 billion.
“The king has put his son on an incredibly steep learning curve, clearly,” said Ford Fraker, president of the Middle East Policy Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “The king is obviously convinced he is up to the challenge.”
But some Western diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the prince and the king, say they are worried about the growing influence of the prince, with one even calling him “rash” and “impulsive.” And in interviews, at least two other princes in the main line of the royal family made it clear that some older members of the clan have doubts as well. Both questioned the costs and benefits of the Yemen campaign that Prince Mohammed has spearheaded.
King Salman, of course, has ultimate authority, and some diplomats who have met with both Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in recent months said the senior prince appeared avuncular toward his younger cousin. Several said the crown prince appeared to be working hard to guide and train Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But other diplomats said they believed Prince Mohammed bin Salman had played a bigger role in advocating for the Yemen air campaign.
After meeting with both princes at a summit meeting of Gulf nations at Camp David last month, President Obama said the younger Prince Mohammed “struck us as extremely knowledgeable, very smart.”
“I think wise beyond his years,” Obama added in an interview with the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya network.
But scholars say the accumulation of so much responsibility in the hands of one branch of the family — to say nothing of one young prince — breaks with a system of intrafamily power sharing put in place at the founding of the modern Saudi state by King Abdul Aziz al Saud eight decades ago. It ended decades of sometimes violent infighting and has helped preserve family unity ever since.
Crown princes had long presided over their own royal courts and executive staff members. Most other ministerial positions — and most important, those controlling the military, national guard and internal security — were distributed among other princes. But the critical ministries of oil and finance were kept in neutral, technocratic hands outside the family.
But King Salman upended that. He made Prince Mohammed the first chief of his royal court and absorbed the court of the crown prince into his own. He removed the state oil company from the oil ministry and put it under Prince Mohammed, who was also handed control of a newly created economic policy council and the Defense Ministry. (King Salman had been defense minister.)
Prince Mohammed is also expected to take over the national guard from his cousin Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, according to an aide to Prince Mutaib and Western diplomats. The change would consolidate both forces under the Defense Ministry but fundamentally alter the balance of power in the family.
Prince Mohammed’s three older half brothers — sons of their father’s first wife, Sultana Bint Turki Al Sudairi, who died in 2011 — all have distinguished résumés and were once considered contenders for top government roles.
Prince Sultan bin Salman al Saud, 58, a former colonel in the Saudi air force, is a former astronaut who flew on the space shuttle Discovery in 1985 and now heads a tourism and antiquities commission. Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, believed to be about 55, is a deputy minister of oil who has championed efforts to modernize the industry. Prince Faisal bin Salman, 44, holds a Ph.D. in political science from Oxford, was a research fellow at Georgetown, founded one of Saudi Arabia’s largest investment firms, Jadwa, and serves as the governor of Medina.
Prince Mohammed, in contrast, holds a bachelor’s degree in law from King Saud University in Riyadh and has never studied outside the kingdom.
Prince Mohammed, however, is the firstborn son of King Salman’s third and most recent wife, Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan, who worked hard to promote him as his father’s successor, according to Western diplomats who know the family, several family members, and associates who have worked for the family.
“He is her eldest,” said one longtime associate who works closely with the clan. “For her, he is her glory at the end of the day.”
Prince Mohammed seemed to be planning for a future in government from an early age, said one family associate who knew him well. Unlike many other Saudi princes of his generation, Prince Mohammed never smoked, drank alcohol or stayed out late. “It was obvious to me that he was planning his future — he was always very concerned about his image,” the family associate said.
He became a constant presence at the side of his father, according to friends, relatives and associates. Eventually, Prince Mohammed held formal titles as adviser to his father, when he was governor of Riyadh and defense minister.
“Being with Prince Salman every minute — can you imagine what you would have learned?” said Dr. Selwa al-Hazzaa, a physician who has cared for the royal family and is a member of the advisory Shura Council appointed by the king. “Do you need someone who has been educated in the States, or someone who has been his father’s shadow?”
Current and former diplomats with long experience in Saudi Arabia say they barely know Prince Mohammed. He has seldom if ever given an interview, even to the supportive Saudi news media.
An official biography says vaguely that he was “self-employed” and “earned commercial experience founding several businesses and investments.” Businessmen in Riyadh say he was known for his active trading in stocks and real estate.
Associates say he likes water skiing and other water sports on the Red Sea or during travels. He is a fan of iPhones and other Apple products. And he developed an early and abiding love of Japan, which remains his favorite country, a close associate said. When Prince Mohammed first married several years ago, he took his wife on a two-month honeymoon to Japan and the Maldives. (He recently married a second wife, associates said.)
His most public role was running the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Foundation. Broadly dedicated to developing Saudi youth, the foundation has held conferences on the uses of Twitter and YouTube, and it has explored producing Japanese-style “manga” cartoons to showcase Arab culture.
Echoing commentary in the state news media, many Saudi subjects interviewed on the streets of Riyadh in recent days praised Prince Mohammed as a representative of the nearly 70 percent of the population that is younger than 30.