Saudi Arabia wants good relations with Iran, says few differences with US
DUBAI - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz spoke during a television interview about a number of thorny issues, notably the talks with Iran, the Yemeni crisis, the kingdom’s Vision 2030, as well as relations with the new US administration of President Joe Biden.
In the broadcast late Tuesday, the crown prince struck a conciliatory tone towards the kingdom’s arch-nemesis Iran, saying he sought “good” relations, after sources said the rivals had held secret talks in Baghdad.
The two countries, locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance, cut ties in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions following the kingdom’s execution of a revered Shia cleric.
“Iran is a neighbouring country and all we aspire for is a good and special relationship with Iran,” said Prince Mohammed.
“We do not want Iran’s situation to be difficult. On the contrary, we want Iran to grow… and to push the region and the world towards prosperity.”
He added that Riyadh was working with regional and global partners to find solutions to Tehran’s “negative behaviour.”
That marks a change in tone compared to Prince Mohammed’s previous interviews, in which he lashed out at Tehran, accusing it of fuelling regional insecurity.
The prince did not mention any negotiations with Tehran.
Talks in Baghdad, said to have been brokered by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, were reported by the Financial Times which said a first meeting had been held on April 9. Riyadh has officially denied the talks while Tehran has stayed mum, asserting only that it has “always welcomed” dialogue with Saudi Arabia.
The initiative comes at a time of shifting power dynamics, as US President Joe Biden is seeking to revive the tattered 2015 nuclear deal that was abandoned by Donald Trump.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have backed opposite sides of several regional conflicts, from Syria to Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting the Houthi militias.
A message to Houthis
Iran supports the Houthis, who are battling the Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015.
The militias have also stepped up drone and missile strikes on targets within Saudi Arabia, including its oil facilities.
In his interview, Prince Mohammed renewed calls for a ceasefire and negotiations with the Houthis.
He said no state wanted an armed militia along its borders and urged the Houthis to “sit at the negotiating table.”
Riyadh last month presented a nationwide ceasefire proposal for Yemen but the Houthis have yet to accept it.
“Saudi Arabia proposed a ceasefire and economic support in exchange for a cessation of hostilities by the Houthis,” the crown prince said.
“While there is no doubt that the Houthis have a close relationship with the Iranian regime, there is no doubt that the Houthis are Arabs at the end of the day, and it is inevitable that they will have to work with their brothers to end this conflict,” he added.
Few differences with US
On relations with Washington, Prince Mohammed said the United States was a strategic partner and that Riyadh had only a few differences with the Biden administration which it was working to resolve.
The crown prince, however, stressed Saudi Arabia would not accept any pressure or interference in its internal affairs.
“We are more than 90% in agreement with the Biden administration when it comes to Saudi and US interests and we are working to strengthen these interests,” the crown prince said.
“The matters we disagree on represent less than 10% and we are working to find solutions and understandings … there is no doubt that the United States is a strategic partner,” he added.
Prince Mohammed, who became crown prince in 2017 and has consolidated power since, said Saudi Arabia is also building strategic partnerships with Russia, India and China.
The Biden administration earlier this year released a US intelligence report implicating the crown prince in the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi but spared him any direct punishment. The prince denies any involvement.
It has also withdrawn support for offensive operations by a Saudi-led coalition battling Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis.
The conflict is seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran which are locked in a rivalry for regional influence.
Saudi Arabia, which is facing a number of regional and international challenges, is also involed in a tough battle to diversify its economy and transform its society.
In this regard, Prince Mohammed laid out a vigorous defense of his domestic policies and the thinking behind his push to transform Saudi Arabia economically and socially.
He revealed economic figures and cited milestones to explain why the government has raised taxes, cut subsidies and embarked on unpopular austerity measures to hit targets in the so-called Vision 2030 plan.
The crown prince said the kingdom is in talks to sell a 1% stake of the state-owned oil giant Aramco to a leading global energy company. In 2019, the kingdom listed 5% of Aramco on the Saudi stock exchange in an effort to raise money for its sovereign wealth fund.
The interview was timed to mark five years since the launch of Vision 2030, Prince Mohammed’s blueprint for transforming the kingdom from an oil-dependent nation to an economic powerhouse that is open to the world. In his unveiling of the project in 2016, he acknowledged Saudi Arabia had an “addiction to oil.”
One of the most important goals of Prince Mohammed is to create millions of jobs for young Saudis entering the workforce. He aims to lower unemployment to 7% by 2030. The kingdom’s unemployment shot to a high of 15.9% in mid-2020 before going back down to around 12%.
To boost government revenue last year and help offset the double shock of the coronavirus pandemic and downward slide in oil prices, the government tripled taxes on goods and services to 15%, which led to a rise in inflation and grumblings on social media.
The crown prince described the tax rate as a “temporary decision” that could last from one to five years and then be lowered to between 5% and 10%. He said difficult decisions had to be made “to avoid catastrophe and create opportunities.”
The crown prince is popular among many Saudis for his bold social reforms.
With backing from his father, the prince has lifted the ban on women driving, curbed restrictive male guardianship laws, opened the country to cinemas and concerts and issued directives that have dramatically dropped the kingdom’s rate of executions.
“Today we cannot advance… with the presence of extremist thought in the kingdom,” he said, adding that it would hamper economic growth and development. He cautioned that any Saudi with extremist views, even if that person hasn’t yet committed a crime, “is a criminal.”
He attempted to put distance between the kingdom and the teachings of the late Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, whose ultraconservative teachings are known as “Wahhabism” and associated with some of the most extreme interpretations of Islam. The prince said there is no single person nor school of thought in the kingdom that Islam should be confined to.
With the interview targeting Saudi viewers during the holy month of Ramadan, he said no longer should punishment and laws be based on narrow, outdated 100-year-old clerical interpretations of the Quran.
“Our constitution is the Quran. It has been, it is and will continue to be,” the crown prince said, stressing that religious moderation is key.