Steve Coll writes: Last January, Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended to the throne of Saudi Arabia and installed his son Mohammed bin Salman as Minister of Defense. The Minister, who is thirty-four, holds an undergraduate degree in law from King Saud University. In late March, the Saudis launched a bombing campaign against neighboring Yemen, to contain a rebel force known as the Houthis, whom the Saudis see as allies of Iran, a rival. Bin Salman oversaw pilots flying advanced U.S.-made jets that, according to Human Rights Watch, dropped U.S.-made cluster bombs. Since the campaign began, Saudi-led strikes have killed hundreds of Yemeni civilians in schools and homes and at a camp for internal refugees. The Houthis have expanded the area under their control since the bombing started.
Bin Salman’s war is an inauspicious start to a new era for the royal family. The kingdom hasn’t experienced this kind of political shakeup since 1975, when Faisal bin Musaid, a failed student and an LSD dealer at the University of Colorado, assassinated King Faisal, his uncle. The King had been an economic modernizer, but, after the shock of his death, the Saudi throne passed laterally among aged half brothers, who ruled cautiously. It was unclear how power would ever pass to a younger generation. King Salman, who is seventy-nine, boldly resolved that question earlier this year by naming a nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, who is fifty-five and runs the Interior Ministry, as his Crown Prince and successor, and installing bin Salman as second in line. This plan empowers Salman’s branch of the House of Saud, who are known as the Sudairis, after Salman’s mother.
The new princes are rising amid an unusual estrangement between Riyadh and Washington. Last week, at the last minute, the King declined to attend a conference at Camp David, where President Obama gathered potentates from Saudi Arabia and smaller Persian Gulf emirates to discuss security coöperation. (Salman sent his nephew and his son in his stead.) The snub seemed a hollow gesture of passive-aggressiveness, yet it signalled how Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran are unsettling the kingdom. [Continue reading…]