Saudi king points to danger of Iran’s ‘regional project’

The king stressed the necessity of “finding a radical solution to ensure Iran does not acquire weapons of mass destruction”.
Thursday 12/11/2020
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud gives a virtual speech during the first session of Shura council, from NEOM, Saudi Arabia, November 11, 2020. (REUTERS)
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud gives a virtual speech during the first session of Shura council, from NEOM, Saudi Arabia, November 11, 2020. (REUTERS)

RIYADH - In an annual speech delivered early Thursday, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud stressed that threats from Iran remain a top concern and accused Tehran of supporting terrorism and fueling sectarianism in the region.

The speech, which outlined the country’s policy priorities and achievements, was delivered virtually by the 82-year-old monarch to the advisory Shura Council in the presence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

The king stressed the necessity of “finding a radical solution to ensure Iran does not acquire weapons of mass destruction.”

“Saudi Arabia affirms the danger of the Iranian regime’s regional project,” he said.

The kingdom heads an Arab coalition that is at war with Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen. The conflict has killed thousands and created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

Although the king made no mention of it in his speech, another issue facing the kingdom next year will be its relationship with a new US administration led by President-elect Joe Biden. The Saudi leadership has strongly favoured President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against rival Iran.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud gives his virtual speech from his palace in NEOM, Saudi Arabia, November 11. (REUTERS)
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud gives his virtual speech from his palace in NEOM, Saudi Arabia, November 11. (REUTERS)

A full day after statements began pouring in from world leaders, the king and Crown Prince Mohammed congratulated Biden on his election win in separate cables late Sunday, noting the “deep historical relations” that exist between the two nations — even as Trump refuses to publicly concede.

In his speech, King Salman also reaffirmed his support for an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, though he also welcomed efforts aimed at bringing an end to the decades-long conflict. He spoke as neighbouring UAE and Bahrain are normalising relations with Israel while the kingdom has said peace with Israel hinges on a prior Palestinian-Israeli agreement.

Domestically, Saudi Arabia is in midst of economic recession this year due to the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia’s main source of revenue — its oil exports — have plunged significantly due to a drop in crude prices. The government projects the gap between spending and revenue to reach $79.5 billion this year.

“The kingdom has worked and is still working to ensure the stability of oil supplies to the world in a way that serves producers and consumers alike … despite the coronavirus pandemic and its repercussions on global oil markets,” King Salman said.

He praised the country’s role for its presidency this year of the Group of 20 nations that represent the world’s wealthiest countries, a point of pride the kingdom has stressed repeatedly. Saudi Arabia will host leaders of the G20 later this month for a virtual summit that is expected to focus heavily on global efforts to fight the coronavirus.

The king also thanked the Saudi public for adhering to instructions and mask mandates to curb the spread of the virus as new confirmed cases there have gone down in past weeks. He noted the government has spent $70 billion this year, in part to boost health care and help cover private sector wages. The government is covering all virus-related medical costs for residents of Saudi Arabia, including those in the country illegally.

King Salman’s reign since ascending to the throne in 2015 has been marked by sweeping social transformations, as well as the swift rise to power of his son, the crown prince who is seen as the leading promoter of the transformations.

Saudi Shura council members attend their first session in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 11, 2020. (REUTERS)
Saudi Shura council members attend their first session in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 11, 2020. (REUTERS)

In the latest move, the monarch last month appointed a woman as assistant speaker of the 150-member Shura Council for the first time. Women hold 30 seats in the chamber.

Ayham Kamel, head of Eurasia Group’s Middle East division, said the change reflects efforts at social liberalisation. Kamel said there is also an effort to allow the Shura Council to become a platform for managed debate, although it has limited powers to push for changes without prior blessing from the royal court.