In a major shakeup of the Saudi monarchy, which largely took the world by surprise, King Salman ousted his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince and installed his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, as heir to the throne.
Young as he is, Mohammed bin Salman, 31, is already head of the council leading Saudi Arabia's economic reforms, where he has been working on diversifying the kingdom's oil-dominated economy.
He is also the world’s youngest defense minister and, as such, has become the poster boy for Saudi Arabia’s proxy wars in the Middle East.
The young Saudi royal has also been attracting controversy worldwide for his role in Saudi aerial attacks on Yemen during the last two years, a proxy war with Iran for regional dominance, and also for maintaining a lavish international lifestyle while implementing austerity measures at home.
Iran immediately denounced bin Salman’s elevation, calling the move a “soft coup.”
Bin Salman has become a lightning rod in the battle between tradition and modernity in Saudi Arabia. While his economic reforms aim to modernize the economy and open Saudi society to innovation and entrepreneurship, at the same time he remains loyal to the country’s powerful Islamic clerics.
Saudi Arabia's highest religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars, immediately applauded his appointment as crown prince, the Saudi Press Agency stated on Wednesday.
Qatar crisis role
Three weeks ago, Saudi Arabia led the charge against its Gulf neighbor Qatar, implementing a severe boycott of the energy-rich nation, which it accused of supporting terrorism.
Bin Salman was reportedly instrumental in orchestrating the diplomatic rift with the Gulf state, which was joined by Saudi allies Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE, among others.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the 56-year-old crown prince of Abu Dhabi, joined bin Salman in leading the charge against Qatar. As a result, the duo cemented themselves as the new, young generation of leaders in the Middle East.
“They stand in contrast to previous Gulf Arab leaders who over decades weathered crises mostly by time-consuming conciliation,” reported Reuters.
Their rival is also young: Qatar's ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, took over from his father at 33 in 2013.
Yemen humanitarian crisis
The United Nations announced in March, on the second anniversary of the Yemen conflict, 4,773 confirmed civilian deaths and 8,272 injured in the ongoing conflict that pits Iran-allied Houthi rebels against the Saudi-led Arab coalition in support of the ousted Yemen government.
The UN added that, on average, 100 civilians are killed each month as the war continues.
The war has taken a heavy toll on the country's food supply and health facilities. Saudi-led airstrikes have bombed many hospitals and clinics, while others have had to close their doors because of the fighting.
Less than a third of Yemen's 24 million people have access to health facilities, according to UNICEF, which says at least 1,000 Yemeni children die every week from preventable diseases, while some 2.2 million children suffer from malnutrition across Yemen.
Saudi-led airstrike have been responsible for mass killings of civilians on multiple occasions, including the repeated bombing of a crowded funeral hall in Sana in 2016, which killed 140.
Additionally, under bin Salman’s leadership as defense minister, Saudi Arabia has admitted to dropping British-made cluster bombs in Yemen.
The United Kingdom stopped manufacturing cluster bombs in 1989 and signed up to a convention in 2008 not to use them anymore for humanitarian reasons.
Bin Salman met with U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House a month before Trump’s first official overseas visit, which was to Saudi Arabia in May.
During that visit, Trump announced one of the largest weapons sales in history, totaling $110-billion worth of tanks, artillery, radar systems, armored personnel carriers, Blackhawk helicopters and Patriot missiles. Much of that military hardware will likely be used in the Saudi fighting in Yemen.
On June 15, the UN Security Council unanimously called for a cease-fire in the conflict between the Saudi-UAE coalition and the Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen.
UNHRC – Seat on Women’s Commission
Human rights advocacy groups have repeatedly called for Saudi Arabia to be booted from the UN Human Rights Council since its three-year term on the council began in 2016.
The Saudis have "an appalling record of violations in Yemen while a Human Rights Council member," insisted Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in a June 2016 joint statement.
Saudi Arabia also raised the ire of human rights groups after it was elected to the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
It was uncovered in 2015 that Saudi Arabia only managed to get on the UNHRC after a secret a deal with the United Kingdom. The U.K. undertook a clandestine vote-trading deal with Saudi Arabia to guarantee both nations would have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, the Guardian reported.
Granted, bin Salman had no reported direct personal association with the secret deal to get on the UNHRC. But his ongoing campaign in Yemen has been spared much condemnation by Saudi Arabia having a louder voice on the council.
Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State group
Saudi Arabia has been accused repeatedly of supporting Islamic extremism, even the Islamic State group. After ISIS carried out attacks on the Iranian parliament in Tehran two weeks ago, Iran immediately pointed the finger at Saudi Arabia – which is nothing new, since Iran and Saudi Arabia have long exchanged accusations of supporting terror.
However, during the 2016 presidential election, leaked emails from Hillary Clinton exposed to what extent the U.S. government was concerned over Saudi Arabia’s ties to ISIS. In a 2014 email, then-Secretary of State Clinton wrote, “We need to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL [ISIS] and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
Clinton’s sentiments have some bipartisan support: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who was leading a congressional fight against Trump’s arms sale to Saudi Arabia, also accused the Saudis of funding terrorism. “If you support Israel, you can't support more arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” Paul concluded.
Another newly released email, from January 2016, includes an excerpt from a private October 2013 speech in which Clinton acknowledged that “the Saudis have exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last 30 years.”
Both as defense minister and in pushing his economic reforms, bin Salman is in a difficult position, since his rule relies on the powerful clergy of the kingdom’s semi-official Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam.
A June 2013 report from the European Parliament claimed Wahhabism is the main source of global terrorism. It also found that Saudi Arabia had spent more than $10 million promoting the creed through charities around the Muslim world.
As a result, according to The New York Times, "American government reports say financial support for terrorism from Saudis 'remains a threat to the kingdom and the international community.'”
Buying a yacht while imposing austerity
On a different front, bin Salman was widely criticized for purchasing a $550-million "superyacht" while pushing through drastic austerity measures in Saudi Arabia. Bin Salman bought the 440-foot yacht from Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler while holidaying in the south of France in October 2016.
During that same period, bin Salman had frozen government contracts and dropped Saudi Arabia's capital spending by 71 per cent.
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