Riyadh expected to pursue assertive regional policies
London- Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s promotion to Saudi Arabia’s next-in-line to the throne has been widely welcomed by Arab leaders and is seen as solidifying the assertive style of Saudi foreign policy on diplomatic, economic and security matters.
However, the news did not go down well with Iran, which described it as “a soft coup.” Pro- Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah’s Al- Manar TV presented Crown Prince Mohammed’s promotion as a “major event that has possible ramifications.”
After Crown Prince Mohammed was named deputy crown prince in January 2015, Tehran seemed caught off-guard by the kingdom’s new assertive regional policy after decades of conservative and low-key policies. Riyadh’s unwillingness to tolerate what it saw as Iran’s subversive activities led to the war in Yemen and Saudi Arabia severing diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016.
However, with the latest reshuffle, analysts said they see mostly a continuation of the regional policy in place since 2015.
“Saudi Arabia is on a steady path in dealing with its international files,” Saudi analyst Ghazi al-Harthy said. “There will be no change in the kingdom’s strategy, especially with regards to Iranian expansionist activities.
Harthy added this was the case especially because there is no fundamental change in leadership in the kingdom with Crown Prince Mohammed’s promotion.
The new crown prince made his views towards the government in Tehran clear in an interview earlier this year on Al Arabiya satellite news channel.
“How can I come to an understanding with someone or a regime that has an anchoring belief built on an extremist ideology?” Crown Prince Mohammed asked in a reply to a question about direct talks with Tehran.
“Their stance is that the awaited Mahdi will come and they need to create a fertile environment for the arrival of the awaited Mahdi and they need to take over the Islamic world,” he said, in reference to Tehran’s regional policy based on Shia religious dogma, related to the return of al-Mahdi, a revered imam, who in Shia doctrine disappeared in the ninth century but will return on judgment day to bring justice to the world.
“We know we are a main target of Iran,” Crown Prince Mohammed said, adding that the kingdom would not wait for the battle to reach its borders.
An important regional issue and one of Crown Prince Mohammed’s first tests has been the war in Yemen, where the kingdom led a coalition of Arab states that included the United Arab Emirates and stopped the Iran allied-Houthis from overrunning the country.
The war has been the subject of criticism due to the deteriorating humanitarian situation and civilian casualties blamed on both sides of the conflict.
Crown Prince Mohammed sees Saudi Arabia as having been forced to intervene in support of the Yemeni government against the Houthi militia and forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“When war began, there was no other option for Saudi Arabia. It was something we had to do or the other scenario would be much worse,” Crown Prince Mohammed said in the Al Arabiya interview, adding that the kingdom’s military forces could neutralise the Houthis “in a few days” but that casualties to both Saudi troops and civilians would be substantial.
In addition to being the architect of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 economic reform plan, Crown Prince Mohammed has assumed a supervisory role on vital economic programmes. He has had hands-on experience in Riyadh’s international oil and investment policies and during the last couple of years, the kingdom has managed to develop extensive ties with China and Russia.
The Saudi leadership expects to find a different climate in Washington towards Iran after eight years of accommodation of Iran by the Obama administration.
Other regional challenges remain, especially the crisis with Qatar, which has led to further strengthening of Saudi-UAE relations, has also highlighted the widening schism between the interests of the Saudi kingdom and the calculations by Iran and Turkey.
With the announcement of the demands on Doha by Riyadh and other Arab capitals, the crisis with Qatar has entered a new phase which will constitute one of the priority challenges of the Saudi leadership.