In an interview aimed at reassuring Saudi Arabian citizens, the Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ruled out any rapprochement with Iran and defended his ambitious economic transformation plan. The hour -long interview gave a glimpse into how Riyadh view its increasingly hot political conflict with Iran. The Deputy Crown Prince is responsible for a swathe of key policy portfolios, including defense and the economy. He has risen to be the most powerful political figure in Saudi Arabia after King Salman.
Bin Salman put his own frame on the rivalry with Iran, which has played out via proxy forces in Syria and Yemen in theological terms. The prince said that Tehran’s ultimate aim is to wrest control Islam’s holiest city, Mecca.
“We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia,” said bin Salman. “Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.” He did not elaborate on any specific policies.
“How do you have a dialogue with a regime built on an extremist ideology…which [says] they must control the land of Muslims and spread their … sect in the Muslim world?”, said Prince Mohammad. He was referencing Ayatollah Khomeini, who overthrew Iran’s monarchy in 1979.
In Yemen, Iran denies Saudi accusations that it provides financial and military support to the Houthis, who are fighting government forces and the Saudi-led coalition.
The war, which is being fought primarily by a Saudi-led coalition, has stalled. Iran’s backing of the Houthis has increased and the fighting has begun to spill over into southern Saudi Arabia, killing security forces and civilians. It is also a financial drain at a time when the cash could be used domestically. Throughout the interview, the prince was clearly trying to address the concerns of the citizens and show that the economic plan and the war are both necessary and proceeding as planned.
Various international players have been trying to get political negotiations back on track between Yemen’s internationally acknowledged government and the rebel forces, since they broke down last summer. But the prince seemed to ratchet up the conflict with Iran, noting that Saudi troops could retake Yemen from the Houthis.
“We can uproot the Houthis and Salem in a matter of days,” said Prince Mohammed. “We can mobilize Saudi land forces alone in days but the casualties in our forces will be in the thousands and the other result will be Yemeni civilian casualties in high numbers.” Instead, he stressed that time was on their side, with the better plan being to choke of the other side’s supplies and exhaust them. The war has killed more than 10,000 people, half of which are civilians, and displaced more than three million.
It is clear that Saudi Arabia is determined to stand up to Iran, particularly as Iran tries to increase its influence in the region by means of military strategy.