TOKYO -- Saudi Arabia inaugurated a new reign in January 2015, with King Salman bin Abdulaziz ascending the throne following the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.
Just a year on, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of the new but elderly king, wields enormous influence in the country. Despite his youth, he also holds key posts related to oil and military policies.
The actions the deputy crown prince takes could hold the key to whether Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, is able to deal with the challenges it faces amid slumping global oil prices.
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed is known as a tough, work-oriented person. But some analysts have expressed concern he may pursue reckless military policies as relations between the U.S. and Iran thaw, or if oil prices slide further. That could fuel tensions in an already war-torn Middle East.
Who's with me?
In December, Saudi Arabia formed a military coalition of 34 Sunni Muslim nations, saying the alliance is aimed at increasing cooperation in the fight against terrorism. But Saudi Arabia's real aim seems to be countering the growing influence of Iran, its Shiite archrival. The regional powers have been locked in a fierce sectarian struggle that spans several countries.
Emboldened by the new alliance, Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric with alleged links to Iran earlier this year. After Iranians enraged by the execution attacked the Saudi embassy, the kingdom severed diplomatic relations with Tehran, putting the Middle East at risk of further instability.
The deputy crown prince Mohammed has played a key role in these military and foreign policy decisions. He became defense minister and assumed other key posts at age 29. It is unusual in the conservative kingdom to put a young man in a position of such responsibility. His promotion is part of a generational change in the country's leadership. But people close to the deputy crown prince say he deserves these key posts based on his ability to get things done and enthusiasm for the job.
Young (Saudi) turk
When King Salman was still serving as governor of Riyadh Province, the deputy crown prince was his father's right-hand man, working on the development and modernization of cities. One official who once worked under the deputy crown prince said the royal did not waste a minute while working on infrastructure development. In fact,some who have worked with the prince wonder when he sleeps.The deputy crown prince is said to take a businesslike attitude toward his subordinates, giving up on those who fail to perform after two warnings.
The deputy crown prince's relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is delicate. The crown prince is King Salman's nephew and serves as Saudi Arabia's interior minister. He has an extensive personal network in U.S..In the kingdom's hierarchy, the crown prince ranks second, followed by the deputy crown prince. The two cousins are pillars of the regime.
But the deputy crown prince has a much higher profile in the current setup, often making appearances at important diplomatic events. Last year, he grabbed a spotlight in a meeting of leaders from the U.S. and the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. He also held important talks with Russian officials, filling in for his father.
The crown prince and his aides favor the kingdom's traditional foreign policy of giving priority to relations with the U.S., while the deputy crown prince advocates reaching out to other powers such as China and Russia. At the moment, the deputy crown prince seems to have the upper hand.
The deputy crown prince also plays a big role in shaping Saudi Arabia's oil policy. Last spring, King Salman created a supreme council with jurisdiction over state-run oil company Saudi Aramco. The council is headed by the deputy crown prince.
In an interview with The Economist earlier in January, the deputy crown prince revealed the Saudi leadership is considering an initial public offering of Saudi Aramco shares.
Aramco has a huge influence on the Saudi economy. The new supreme council is believed to have discussed the IPO issue in accordance with King Salman's wishes. But if the deputy crown prince handles the matter in a high-handed way, it may generate discord within the royal family.
In addition to working on the reform of Saudi Aramco, the deputy crown prince is believed to be holding talks with Russia behind the scenes aimed at ensuring stability in oil prices. He held formal and informal talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials last summer and autumn. There is speculation the deputy crown prince discussed with Russian officials the timing of a possible joint oil production cut, although the conflicts in Syria and Yemen were the main issues on the agenda.
The deepening ties with Russia could earn the displeasure of the U.S., Saudi Arabia's long-standing ally.
Through these moves, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed has cemented his grip on the kingdom's military affairs, diplomacy and oil policy. Saudi Arabia's repeated air strikes against Shiite rebels in neighboring Yemen have further inflamed sectarian strife in the Middle East. The deputy crown prince's hard-line stance on the conflict has drawn criticism.
Global markets, the kingdom's Western partners and its neighbors will all be keeping a wary eye on the young Saudi leader.