When Salman ibn Abdulaziz became crown prince of Saudi Arabia on June 18, 2012, there was a palpable sense of anxiety across the country. This had little to do with the usual unease and uncertainty that succession in the kingdom begets. In his 50-odd years as governor of the capital, Riyadh, Salman had built a reputation as a firm, pragmatic, and uncompromising ruler. He commanded fear from both friend and foe.
Since the early 1990s, Salman had also been instrumental in conceiving a new national development plan. The latter aimed to resolve some of the prevailing challenges of the immediate post–Gulf War period: heightened popular opposition to the ruling family coupled with a global recession that featured a fall in returns on Saudi investments worldwide. The top-down plan promised to overhaul social, economic, and cultural life in the kingdom, beginning with gradually diminishing the power of the religious establishment and diversifying the national economy. There was a lot at stake for those who had theretofore benefited from the status quo. But they were not the only ones who feared the severity of a Salman regime. With Salman just one step away from absolute power, “may God help us” was the common refrain among Saudis of all political stripes and socioeconomic classes.
Salman amassed great power through his prestigious position as governor of Riyadh, long considered the heart of the ruling Al Saud monarchy. The institutions he oversaw there—largely manned by professionalized graduates of Saudi universities—ran like clockwork. This was a significant feat, considering the history of institutional incompetence in Saudi Arabia. Together and separately, they worked to implement the regime’s postwar vision, even if their scope was restricted to the capital.
By the mid-2000s, and especially as the price of oil rose to an all-time high, many of the economic and cultural plans conceived in the previous decade began to materialize under the framework of the Metropolitan Development Strategy for Arriyadh Region (MEDSTAR). This strategic vision for the development of the capital included economic, environmental, infrastructural, cultural, and urban aspects. It was (and still is) managed by Salman’s most prized institution, the Arriyadh Development Authority (ADA), through which he has engendered new loyal elites, construction moguls, and employees. Sidelining religion was central to the development plan, which provoked the ire of many, not least the Islamists and conservatives. But Salman had close ties with the religious establishment, over which he nonetheless exerted great power that he used to manage both clerics and foot soldiers to serve his own agenda.
More than anything, then, Salman embodied the potential undermining of what many saw as the pillars of Saudi rule: traditional alliances within the ruling family and between them and the country’s economic elites and religious clerics. Even within the ruling family, it is not surprising that many dreaded the prospect of Salman’s ascending the throne. After all, he was the final arbiter of disputes between members of his family and of transgressions and crimes that they themselves committed. That the then–“family prison” was located on his estate speaks to the role he occupied within the monarchy. He was known to be ruthless toward those who did not heed his orders or toe his line, a lesson that has served his son and current crown prince, Mohammed, rather well. Indeed, many of Mohammed’s claims to reform religion and the economy in the kingdom are continuations of his father’s three-decade-long efforts. Mohammed is a product of his father’s upbringing and political ideologies, even if he has shown himself to be less cautious, discreet, and tactful than the now-ailing king. He came of age working by his father’s side when the latter was still the governor of Riyadh, and he oversaw the making of the capital into the sprawling metropolis it is today.