Editor's note:

“In Unpacked, Brookings experts provide analysis of Trump administration policies and news.”

The issue:

During an unusual but not unexpected shakeup in the House of Saud, King Salman replaced Crown Prince and Minister of the Interior Mohammad bin Nayef—American security services “go

to guy” for the last fifteen years—with his 31-year-old son Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman. Though the Saudis have “fallen in love” with Donald Trump and bin Salman is a favorite of the Trump administration, bin Nayef’s removal and other underlying issues—including a recent and closer-than-expected Congressional vote on a Saudi arms deal—may not bode well for U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations.

With this change in leadership, the United States is losing an ally.

The things you need to know:

  • 81-year-old King Salman of Saudi Arabia has decided to replace Mohammad bin Nayef, the crown prince he selected two years ago, with his 31-year-old son, Mohammad bin Salman.
  • In retrospect, it’s clear that the king has been grooming his son to be his successor for the last two years. Mohammad bin Salman has taken on a number of new roles and was given the nickname “Mr. Everything” because his hands were in everything.
  • A year ago, expectations of a change became so intense that Mohammad bin Nayef spent six weeks in Algeria sulking.
  • Now that the time has finally come, Mohammad bin Nayef has accepted the change and has sworn his loyalty to Mohammad bin Salman.
  • There is no challenge or dissent option in the House of Saud; when the king decides, everyone salutes.
  • With this change in leadership, the United States is losing an ally. Bin Nayef, 57, is an expert in counterterrorism trained by the FBI, and he has been America’s go-to-guy in Saudi Arabia for the last fifteen years.
  • Every director of central intelligence, going back to George Tenet, is on a first name basis with Mohammed bin Nayef, including current director Mike Pompeo.
  • He was a powerful interior minister, overseeing a million-man bureaucracy, and defeated al Qaeda’s attempt to overthrow the House of Saud.
  • On the other hand, Mohammad bin Salman is a favorite of the Trump Administration and a favorite of Jared Kushner. Mohammad bin Salman can be very aggressive, very ruthless and very reckless in some ways as an individual.
  • He’s the architect of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. He promised that the war would be over in two months—it’s two and a half years later and end is nowhere in sight.
  • The Saudi government has fallen in love with President Trump largely because they fell out of love with Barack Obama. Obama sold Saudi Arabia over 100 billion dollars’ worth of arms, but he famously threw former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak under the bus during the Arab Spring, and the Saudis completely soured on that.
  • Obama talked about human rights and gender equality and learning to live with the Iranians. Donald Trump is the antithesis of all of that and the Saudis see Trump as a man that is not going to raise concerns over these issues, and who shares their concerns over Iran.
  • It appears that the Trump administration and the Saudi government have found a match that so far seems to be working very well for both of them.
  • But there are still underlying differences. The Muslim Ban did not go down very well among Saudi people, and what has essentially amounted to a “get out of jail card” for Saudi policies from Trump will not go over well in the long run for Americans.
  • While the Trump administration may be enamored by the House of Saud, the last Saudi arms deal that went to Capitol Hill passed by only three votes which shows the United States Congress is not.

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