Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s warning to Iran

In an hour-long television interview, the 31-year-old prince provided an unvarnished look into how Riyadh views its increasingly hot political conflict with Tehran, writes Taimur Khan

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said there would be no negotiations with Iran. Nicolas Asfouri / Getty Images
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ABU DHABI // Saudi Arabia’s powerful deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ruled out any rapprochement with arch-rival Iran and defended the ambitious economic transformation plan he is leading, in a wide-ranging interview aimed at reassuring Saudis.

The hour-long interview by the 31-year-old prince, who is responsible for a swathe of key policy portfolios including defence and the economy, was an unvarnished look into how Riyadh views its increasingly hot political conflict in the Middle East with Tehran.

Prince Mohammed framed the rivalry, which has played out via proxy forces in Syria and Yemen, in theological terms, and said that Tehran’s ultimate aim is to wrest control of Islam’s holiest site in Mecca. “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia,” he said, without elaborating on policies. “Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

He made repeated references in the interview with a journalist from MBC to the Shiite ideology of the Iranian state, and said it was impossible for there to be dialogue with an entity that believes its policies are divinely-guided to prepare conditions for the return of the Imam Mahdi – who Twelver Shiites believe will return from hiding before the end of times and establish just rule across the world.

“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 Twelver Jaafari sect in the Muslim world?,” Prince Mohammed said.

The deputy crown prince has, in terms of his public prominence and control of the kingdom’s most important policies, risen to become Saudi Arabia’s most powerful figure after King Salman.

But ownership of the war in Yemen and the Vision 2030 economic diversification plan to end the Saudi economy’s reliance on oil has also come with risks including growing concern among Saudis as both undertakings face ongoing complications.

Tuesday’s interview appeared to be largely intended for a domestic audience, and to address concerns among citizens and show that the economic reform plan, despite painful austerity measures, as well as the war, are proceeding as planned and are justified.

The war in Yemen has stalled, with an increasing amount of fighting with Iran-backed Houthi rebels spilling across Saudi Arabia’s southern border, killing security forces and civilians. It is also a drain – however manageable – to public finances at a time when the cash used to sustain the operation in Yemen could be put to domestic use.

The UAE, Russia and western diplomats have been working to try and get the political negotiations between the internationally recognised government and the rebel alliance that broke down last summer back on track.

But the Saudi deputy crown prince ratcheted up the rhetoric of confrontation against Iran, and also said the Saudi-led coalition had time on its side in the fight with the Houthis and the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“We can uproot the Houthis and Saleh in a matter of days,” Prince Mohammed said. “We can mobilise 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.”

The prince also addressed other regional issues that have caused controversy, including reported tensions with Egypt and the issue of the Tiran and Sanafir islands that Cairo planned to return to Saudi sovereignty before a court halted the plan. He appeared to suggest that despite the court order, the islands were Saudi possessions.

“The islands are registered in Egypt as Saudi islands and they are registered in Saudi Arabia and international centres as Saudi islands,” he said. “What happened was setting up maritime borders. Neither Egypt nor Saudi gave up any territory.”

Riyadh has given billions of dollars in aid and support to Cairo since president Abdel Fattah El Sisi came to power, including through direly needed oil shipments that were suspended six months ago. But those shipments have reportedly resumed and Prince Mohammed said media outlets “that criticise the relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood … our relationship with Egypt is concrete, strong and one of the deepest ever”.

The interview largely focused on the most pressing issue for Saudis – biting austerity measures and how and when they will be offset by economic growth. In a recent report, the IMF stated that the kingdom’s economic growth had shrunk from 1.4 per cent last year to 0.4 per cent, due to falling oil prices.

The slashing of state salaries, vastly reduced spending and other austerity reforms reduced the budget deficit by nearly US$20 billion (Dh73.4bn) to $79bn last year, which Prince Mohammed said allowed the country to reverse the unpopular moves.

Calls by Saudis on social media to end the measures had been increasing until the reversal earlier this month, but Prince Mohammed said that public anger had not forced the decision.

“The suspension of allowances was temporary and was to be reviewed periodically,” he said. “It was reviewed in the appropriate time after our oil revenue improved.”

A welfare system called the citizen’s account is planned to help 10 million poorer citizens cope with slashed subsidies and increasing public service costs and taxes. The prince said “side effects” such as unemployment should be expected, but that “these new programmes, which are being launched, will start yielding results by the end of 2017 and more strongly in 2018 and 2019”.

He also highlighted how the planned initial public offering for around 5 per cent of the state oil company Aramco will be used to bolster growth in non-oil sectors of the economy. Between 50 and 70 per cent of the offering, which has been valued between one and two trillion dollars will be invested within the country through its new sovereign wealth fund. Defence production, mining and other industries and entertainment would all be developed, he said.

Responding to what he called “socialist and communist” criticism of the IPO, he said it will “give us a shortcut … to create jobs”. He added that despite the offering and the potential demands of shareholders, Riyadh will still control oil production policy and that Saudi Arabia’s oilfields will remain sovereign assets.

He also vowed to fight corruption and said that no one would be immune from punishment if caught conducting graft. “No one involved in corruption will be spared no matter who they are, I assure you,” he said.

“Whether a minister, a prince, or anyone. Anyone who is guilty of corruption will be held accountable.”