CAIRO - The appointment of Saudi King Salman's son, Mohammed bin Salman, to be the new crown prince, replacing his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, had long been rumored, but may have been precipitated by acute regional tensions, including the war in Yemen, the intensifying regional struggle with Iran, and the recent crisis with Qatar.
As the torch-bearer for a new generation, the new crown prince is reputed to have a more modern, less traditional outlook on governing the kingdom.
Saudi media showed newly appointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receiving a pledge of loyalty from his predecessor Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, his older cousin, early Wednesday morning.
The fealty ceremony, which is symbolic in a traditionally tribal society, took place at the Safa Palace in Mecca.
The new crown prince already wielded enormous power as the country's defense minister and as his father's right-hand man. Mohammed bin Salman is also heavily involved in economic policy and launched an ambitious plan earlier this year to transform the kingdom's economy, called "Horizon 2030." He was also thought to be instrumental in the partial privatization of the country's flagship national oil company, Aramco.
Perhaps Mohammed bin Salman's most significant enterprise, however, has been the kingdom's war effort in Yemen. Riyadh has been attempting to dislodge the Iranian-backed Houthi militia from the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, and to restore the internationally recognized president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. That effort has proven to be extremely costly and drawn some degree of cross-border retaliation.
No foreign policy change expected
Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), tells VOA that observers in the Gulf are expecting Mohammed bin Salman to continue most of the same Saudi foreign policy goals that he has been responsible for pursuing.
"The recent changes internally and with respect to Saudi foreign policy have largely had Mohammed bin Salman's influence in it, and therefore I don't expect to see any real changes with respect to Saudi foreign policy," he said.
He argues that analysts in the Gulf believe Saudi Arabia will "continue to take a hard line stance on Iran's [aggressive posture] in the region, especially in meddling in Arab affairs ... in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere."
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, calls the naming of Mohammed bin Salman to be Crown Prince a "palace coup," stressing that it marks not just the continuation of the status quo, but "an escalation in Saudi regional policies.
Khashan argues that the ouster of "Mohammed bin Nayef had long been expected," but that it might have been precipitated by regional developments.
"We were expecting the ouster of Mohammed bin Nayef since last April, after the sweeping changes in the Saudi administration, [but] the fact that the transition happened officially [now] means that Saudi Arabia is facing a very tough regional situation and the crisis with Qatar is very demanding and very difficult and is not easy to win," said Khashan.
Khashan also points out that King Salman, who has been on the throne since his half-brother, King Abdallah, died in early 2015, is 82 years old and not in extremely good health. "I would imagine," he says, "that [King Salman's] health will not get any better and it is just a matter of time before transition [to the new generation] takes place."
The founder of the Saudi dynasty, King Abdel Aziz al-Saud, said before he died that his successors should come from his immediate descendants, or sons. King Salman, who is one of King Abdel Aziz al-Saud's last surviving sons, has now made the move, with the approval of an "Allegiance Council" set up in 2006, to pass on the reins of power to a new generation made up of King Abdel Aziz' grandsons.
Well known Egyptian political sociologist Said Sadek tells VOA that King Salman may have been worried about "dying suddenly" and leaving behind a "power struggle." He suspects that the king may also have been concerned about ousted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef's relations with Qatar.
"I think the king wanted to rush this [new] arrangement for many reasons. I think one of them is that the deposed crown prince Nayef was close to Qatar and he was not really happy about the siege of Qatar [by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies], and maybe Qatar also favored him over [his own son] Mohammed bin Salman," said Sadek.
He said it was important that the transition to the new crown prince happen quickly, while King Salman is still in power. "If you wait," he adds,"and something changes, it will not be easy to guarantee the regional and local arrangements and that [could create] a power struggle."