Timeline: The Rise of Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman

October 1, 2019
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by Rahima Nasa Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Newmark Journalism School Fellowship

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on March 7, 2018, in London. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman first introduced himself to the world as a reformer — a man who could modernize both the social code and economy of his father’s kingdom. While serving under his father, King Salman, he has reduced the power of the religious police, granted women more autonomy, and floated bold policies such as bringing Aramco — the state oil company — to the public market.

But though he’s often credited with sweeping reforms, there are also black marks on the young legacy of Prince Mohammed: a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, dissidents imprisoned, the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a new documentary from FRONTLINE, explores the rise of Prince Mohammed and how the 34-year-old was able to rapidly consolidate power by silencing critics and positioning himself to the West and his kingdom as a modernizer.

To better understand his role in the kingdom, FRONTLINE compiled some of the major events Prince Mohammed, often called MBS, has played a hand in.

January 2015 King Salman ascends to the throne after the death of King Abdullah, naming his 56-year-old nephew Mohammed bin Nayef as the crown prince. He also appoints 28-year-old Prince Mohammed, one of his 12 sons, as defense minister. Prince Mohammed is also tasked with overseeing the state’s oil monopoly and overhauling the Saudi economy.

March 2015 As defense minister, MBS launches a military campaign to dislodge Houthi rebels from Yemen. The next day, Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi travels to Saudi Arabia to seek international assistance after Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the country took control of the capital for several months. A campaign launches with a coalition of countries including Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. Saudi officials state that military operation would continue until Yemen’s “legitimate government” is restored.

April 2016 Prince Mohammed officially unveils Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to diversify the country’s economy away from oil and stimulate its private sector. Vision 2030, launched in response to declining oil prices, calls for establishing a $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund — the largest in the world — and privatizing sectors of the economy like airports, education and health care. In it, Prince Mohammed also maps out a series of social reforms within the kingdom, including investing in cultural events and entertainment facilities. Vision 2030 helps MBS gain further traction internationally as a reformer and solidifies him as the new face of the Saudi monarchy.

April 2017 King Salman upends royal customs and names Prince Mohammed as crown prince, removing  Mohammed bin Nayef. It’s reported that Nayef was placed under house arrest to allow MBS to consolidate power, though Saudi officials have denied these claims. The news shocks many — Nayef is a popular figure in the country, with decades of experience in government.

Not long after he is named crown prince, Prince Mohammed leads Saudi Arabia and several other Arab states to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and impose land, air and sea blockades. The countries cite support for terrorist groups and ties to Iran as rationale. The Saudi-led coalition demands that Qatar shut down news outlet Al Jazeera and cut ties with Iran, or else the blockade would continue.

September 2017Prince Mohammed launches a crackdown against his critics, and more than 20 influential clerics and intellectuals are detained. They are charged with acting on behalf of “foreign parties against the security of the kingdom” and accused of having ties to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the clerics, Salman al-Awdah, is detained after tweeting a message welcoming a possible end to the tension between Qatar and other Arab countries. Others are arrested for criticizing the rift between the kingdom and Qatar.

November 2017More than 200 prominent businessmen, former officials and princes are imprisoned at the Ritz-Carlton and other luxury hotels in Riyadh. Saudi authorities say that the crackdown was to address corruption, but human rights groups say that arrests were meant to reclaim assets for the kingdom. People associated with the detainees claim that they were subjected to torture, physically abused and that at least one person was killed. The purge officially ended 15 months later.

Saad Hariri, prime minister of Lebanon at the time, resigns from his position after arriving in Saudi Arabia. In his resignation speech, which airs on a Saudi-owned television channel, he blames Iran for interfering in Arab affairs. The resignation came as a shock to his country as well as the international community, demonstrating the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He ultimately withdraws his resignation weeks later.

March 2018The crown prince begins his international tour, during which he meets with President Trump and other influential people including Jeff Bezos, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates and more. Throughout the tour, MBS helps sell the image of an evolving kingdom.

April 2018Movie theaters are allowed in the kingdom again after being banned for nearly 40 years, part of a larger push to bring in more entertainment programs. (Within the past two years, Prince Mohammed eased restrictions on public concerts and events where men and women mix together.)

May 2018Saudi authorities arrest several women’s rights activists, including Loujain Al-Hathloul, who had been advocating for an end to the ban on women driving for years. Saudi media also launches a smear campaign against the women and labels them as traitors. The arrests come months before Saudi Arabia formally lifts the ban on women drivers — a push that was credited to Prince Mohammed.

October 2018Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post and critic of the Saudi government, is killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The CIA later found that Prince Mohammed had ordered the killing, though Saudi officials denied that he was involved. (In a newly released interview with FRONTLINE, Prince Mohammed admits that Khashoggi was killed “under my watch” and the responsibility for the killing fell on him, though it happened without his knowledge.)

September 2019Two major oil refineries are attacked, which jeopardizes the world’s oil supply. Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed that they were behind the drone strike. However, an intelligence assessment of satellite photos from the attack shows that Iran is more likely the culprit.

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