‘Sea change’: disruptive Saudi prince shows new pragmatism with Iran
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman once compared Iran’s supreme leader to Hitler, but he now has a green-lit reconciliation deal that is intended to usher in a new era of regional prosperity.
As the 29-year-old defense minister, he launched a savage attack on Huthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, but is now engaged in back-channel talks that could eventually draw Saudi forces out of the conflict.
He also worked to mend bitter rifts with regional rivals such as Qatar and Turkey, and even offered the Gulf kingdom as a possible mediator for the war in Ukraine.
Analysts say it reflects the evolution of Prince Mohammed, now 37, from erratic rebel to pragmatic power player.
Dealing with Iran in particular represents “a major change in their political approach”, reflecting “maturity and a more realistic understanding of regional power politics”, said Umar Karim, an expert on Saudi foreign policy at the University of Birmingham.
However, it is too early to know whether such de-escalation measures will succeed — and how far they will go.
The Iran deal has yet to be implemented, and embassies are due to reopen by the second week of May after seven years of cutting bilateral ties.
Saudi Arabia and Syria are also in talks to resume consular services, state media in the kingdom said Thursday, more than a decade after the Gulf kingdom cut ties with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Riyadh had long promoted Assad’s open stance.
Whatever happens next, Riyadh’s agenda is clear: minimize turbulence abroad to keep the focus on a host of economic and social reforms at home.
“Our vision is a successful Middle East,” said one Saudi official, “because without your region developing with you, there are limits to what you can achieve.”
– ‘Vision’ under threat –
It was domestic reforms that initially helped improve Prince Mohammed’s reputation on the world stage.
On his watch, the previously closed kingdom scrapped the infamous religious police, allowed women to drive, opened cinemas and began issuing tourist visas.
His deep-pocketed sovereign wealth fund has made a string of high-profile investments in everything from Newcastle United to Nintendo, signaling how his “Vision 2030” reform agenda could move the world’s biggest crude oil exporter from fossil fuels.
All of this has fueled concern about repression, especially after the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
But Saudi officials also recognized how security threats, particularly from Iran, jeopardized Prince Mohammed’s grand plans.
This point was driven home by attacks in 2019, which Huthis claimed were backed by Iran, on Saudi oil facilities that temporarily halved crude output.
Riyadh and Washington accused Tehran of being behind the operation, which the Iranians denied.
The incident was a game changer, prompting Saudi Arabia to pursue a more conciliatory path, analysts and diplomats say.
Saudi officials were deeply disappointed by the swift response of then-US President Donald Trump’s administration, which they believed undermined the oil-for-security trade-off that underpinned the two countries’ partnership with many years.
“The Saudis were surprised that the Americans did nothing to protect them,” said an Arab diplomat based in Riyadh.
“Saudi officials told us, ‘We need to focus on the megaprojects,'” the diplomat said, citing a futuristic megacity called NEOM and a new arts hub in the northern city of AlUla.
“If one missile hits NEOM or AlUla, there will be no investment or tourism. The vision will collapse.”
– ‘Lowering the temperature’ –
In dealing with Iran, Prince Mohammed has not gone it alone.
Neighboring Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates restored full diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic last year.
But the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran is seen as more significant because the two Middle Eastern heavyweights are often on opposite sides of conflicts – not just in Yemen but also in places including Lebanon and Iraq.
“The kingdom is pursuing a calibrated geopolitical reset that seeks to holistically improve the broader regional security environment,” said Ayham Kamel of Eurasia Group.
Anna Jacobs of the International Crisis Group said: “Lowering the temperature with Iran is a smart way to reduce tensions across the region and defuse some of the proxy battles involving Saudi Arabia.”
The next step to implement the agreement is a meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries, although it has not yet been scheduled.
Earlier this week, an Iranian official said President Ebrahim Raisi had received a favorable invitation to visit Saudi Arabia from Prince Mohammed’s father, King Salman, although Riyadh has not yet confirmed it.
These potential contacts will be closely watched as concerns remain that the rapprochement remains fragile.
“There is deep suspicion between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” Jacobs said, “and both sides will have to see positive signals from the other very soon to move forward with the deal.”