Two years ago, the kingdom’s young and inexperienced ruler was confident he could “get rid of” Iran from the Middle East, but now has shifted towards seeking dialogue.
There has been a clear shift in the harsh anti-Iran tone of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) after the kingdom’s cash cow, Saudi Aramco, was targeted last month in an attack by missiles and drones.
Saudis Arabia’s enemies in Yemen, the Iran-backed Houthis, claimed responsibility for the attacks on the oil facilities, but Riyadh and Washington, along with many experts, believe that Tehran is behind the latest strikes.
However, while the Crown Prince has accused Iran, it is not in any rush to declare war against Tehran.
During an interview with CBS 60 Minutes, a subdued MBS appeared to seek a peaceful solution with Iran, the kingdom’s archenemy, address Tehran-Riyadh tensions by saying: “The political and peaceful solution is much better than the military one.
“This is what President Trump is asking for, this is what we all ask for. However, it is the Iranians who don't want to sit at the table.”
A war with Iran could also trigger a global economic crisis, the prince said, referring to how the latest hits targeting the kingdom’s biggest oil company, Aramco, affected the world’s oil supply for several days. Riyadh is currently seeking to sell a crucial portion of Aramco by launching an IPO, and a war could dim the chances of a good sale.
For the ambitious crown prince, who arrested notable members of the Saudi royal family and launched a costly war in Yemen, it’s a radical change to talk about dialogue with Iran.
A couple years ago, rejuvenated by Trump, the same MBS was talking tough about responding to Iran’s extensive reach across the Middle East from its support to Syria's Assad regime to its powerful influence over Shia-majority Iraq and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, dismissing any possible dialogue 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. Where are the common points that we might be able to reach an understanding on with this regime?” MBS said in late April 2017, during a long interview broadcast by all Saudi media outlets.
Since then, from the Khashoggi killing to the failing Yemen war, a lot of things have happened in the kingdom and larger Middle East at the expense of Riyadh and its young crown prince. It has forced him to come to terms with Tehran, which has built up a powerful proxy network from Central Asia to the Mediterranean coast, referred to by some as the ‘Shia Crescent’, in recent years.
Back in 2017, MBS floated the idea of taking the kingdom’s battle into Iranian territories.
“We are a primary target for the Iranian regime… We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran,” a confident MBS told The Guardian.
But the opposite seems to be taking place today.
The Saudi-led coalition’s Yemen war, which has caused the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis according to the UN, has not gone in a favourable direction in which MBS can easily call the shots. Instead, the kingdom’s territories have been constantly targeted by the Houthis.
Now MBS seeks a ceasefire there to prepare the ground for a possible withdrawal. During his CBS interview, he appeared to plead for an immediate end to the war.
“Today we open all initiatives for a political solution in Yemen. We hope this happens today rather than tomorrow,” the crown prince said.
Experts have found different reasons for MBS’s shifting rhetoric towards Iran.
One is the absence of US support for a possible war against Iran. US President Donald Trump, a staunch ally, has insulated MBS from global isolation, especially in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder.
But lately, Trump has refused to back any plans for war with Tehran. Many in Washington seek an end to US involvement in the Yemen war, reaching out to Houthi leadership for a peaceful resolution, leaving the Saudi-led coalition in limbo.
Another reason that the Saudis don’t have an appetite for war could be the kingdom’s inexperience. Iran has cadres of highly motivated fighters and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as Shia proxies throughout the region. On the other hand, the Saudis have an inexperienced army, relying on mostly foreign fighters and American soldiers to defend their country and fight for them. The Houthis claimed this week that they captured over 2,000 soldiers fighting for Saudi Arabia and killed or wounded another 500. Many of the soldiers were Yemeni who were fighting on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
People familiar with the capacity of Saudi Arabia’s military often evoke one of the best-known jokes in the Middle East: “Saudi Arabia will fight until the last Pakistani.”
A combination of Saudi Arabia’s military capacity, US reluctance to start another war and economic concerns like listing Saudi Aramco, has led the Saudi crown prince to walk back his tough rhetoric on Iran in recent weeks.