Saudi Arabia: A year of change with a new crown prince

32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman is reshaping the ultra-conservative kingdom with a series of reforms that include allowing women to drive and a softened stance on Israel

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington, March 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington, March 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince of Saudi Arabia a year ago, shaking up the ultra-conservative oil power. Here is a rundown of developments:

Crown prince at 31

In a royal decree issued on June 21, 2017, King Salman ousts his nephew as crown prince and installs his 31-year-old son, Mohammed, as his heir.

Widely known as MBS, Prince Mohammed retains his role as defense minister. The move caps a meteoric rise for the young prince.

It comes at the start of a major fallout with Qatar: Riyadh and three Arab allies severe ties with Doha the same month, accusing it of supporting “terrorists” and being too close to Saudi Arabia’s archrival Iran. Qatar denies the charges.

Royal purge

Over several days in September 2017 authorities round up at least 20 people, including influential clerics and intellectuals, in what is condemned as a crackdown on dissent by the crown prince.

Saudi women check out cars at an automotive exhibition for women in the Saudi capital Riyadh on May 13, 2018.
In September 2017, a royal decree announced the end of a ban on women driving — the only one of its kind in the world — as of June 2018. (AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE)

Around 380 royals, ministers and business tycoons are then arrested in November in a dramatic purge led by Prince Mohammed that the government says is a move against corruption.

Many are held for weeks in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Most are released after agreeing significant financial settlements.


The monarchy ends the world’s only ban on female drivers by announcing in September 2017 that they will be able to take the wheel from June 2018.

It is the most striking of a series of reforms since the installation of Prince Mohammed, who is also the architect of a wide-ranging plan for social and economic change, called Vision 2030, that is approved before his appointment.

In this April 17, 2018 photo, Dr. Awwad Alawwad, the Saudi Minister of Culture and Information, tours the King Abdullah Financial District Theater a day ahead of the first public screening of a commercial film in more than 35 years in Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh. (Center for International Communication via AP)

Other reforms include reopening cinemas and allowing both sexes to attend concerts. However Saudi women remain under various restrictions and the authorities are accused of continuing crackdowns on rights activists.

Crisis in Lebanon

In November 2017 Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announces in a televised address from Riyadh that he is resigning, citing Iran’s “grip” on his country.

Saudi Arabia is accused of forcing his hand to make a stand against the influence of Iran and its ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

Hariri, supported by Saudi Arabia for years, spends two weeks in Riyadh amid speculation he cannot leave, until France intervenes and he withdraws his resignation.

Yemen war

The crown prince in November 2017 accuses Iran of “direct military aggression” by supplying ballistic missiles to rebels in neighboring Yemen.

Days before, Saudi forces intercepted a ballistic missile near Riyadh international airport that was fired by the rebels.

In this photo released on October 30, 2017 by Lebanon’s official government photographer Dalati Nohra, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, (r), meets with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Dalati Nohra via AP)

Riyadh entered the Yemeni conflict in 2015 at the head of an Arab military coalition supporting the government against the Iran-allied Huthi rebels.

Nuclear Iran

Prince Mohammed says in March 2018 that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, Riyadh will do so too. In an interview with CBS television, he also likens Iran’s supreme leader with Hitler, saying he “wants to create his own project in the Middle East.”

Riyadh holds deep reservations over the 2015 accord aimed at controlling Iran’s nuclear ambitions and hails President Donald Trump’s announcement in May that the United States is withdrawing from the deal.

Charm offensive

In March the prince embarks on his first foreign tour as heir, visiting Egypt and Britain — where he lunches with Queen Elizabeth II — and spending two weeks in the United States, where he meets Trump and other political and industry leaders. He also goes to France and Spain.

In this May 20, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Opening with Israel

In what appeared to be another shift, Prince Mohammed says in a magazine interview in April that Israelis as well as Palestinians “have the right to have their own land.”

King Salman however later reaffirms Riyadh’s “steadfast” support for the Palestinian cause.

Top Israeli and Saudi Arabian officials reportedly held a series of secret meetings in Cairo in March ahead of US President Donald Trump’s expected unveiling of his long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

In one of the first visible signs of warming Israel-Saudi ties, the Saudis granted Air India permission to fly through Saudi airspace to Israel, a first in 70 years.

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