King meets Hariri – Chopper crash kills prince – New officials sworn in
DUBAI: Saudi Arabia and Iran traded fierce accusations over Yemen yesterday, with Riyadh saying a rebel missile attack “may amount to an act of war” and Tehran accusing its rival of war crimes. Tensions have been rising between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are opposed in disputes and conflicts across the Middle East from Yemen and Syria to Qatar and Lebanon. Yesterday, a Saudi-led military coalition battling Tehran-backed rebels in Yemen said it reserved the “right to respond” to the missile attack on Riyadh at the weekend, calling it a “blatant military aggression by the Iranian regime which may amount to an act of war”.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir also warned Tehran. “Iranian interventions in the region are detrimental to the security of neighboring countries and affect international peace and security. We will not allow any infringement on our national security,” Jubeir tweeted. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif issued dismissive tweets over the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in response. “KSA is engaged in wars of aggression, regional bullying, destabilising behaviour & risky provocations. It blames Iran for the consequences,” he wrote.
Saudi forces on Saturday intercepted and destroyed the ballistic missile near Riyadh’s international airport after it was reportedly fired by Shiite Houthi rebels from Yemen. It was the first attempted missile strike by the rebels to reach Riyadh and threaten air traffic, underscoring the growing threat posed by the conflict on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.
The coalition yesterday sealed off air, sea and land borders in Yemen, where it has been battling rebels in support of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s internationally recognized government since 2015. “The Coalition Forces Command decided to temporarily close all Yemeni air, sea and land ports,” the coalition said in a statement on the Saudi state news agency SPA. It added that aid workers and humanitarian supplies would continue to be able to access and exit Yemen. The United Nations, however, said it was not given approval for two scheduled humanitarian flights yesterday and was seeking clarification on the coalition’s announcement.
An Iranian foreign ministry statement quoted spokesman Bahram Ghassemi as saying the accusations by the coalition were “unjust, irresponsible, destructive and provocative”. Ghassemi said the missile was fired by the Houthis in response “to war crimes and several years of aggression by the Saudis”. The missile attack, he said, was “an independent action in response to this aggression,” and Iran had nothing to do with it.
Analysts said it was unclear how far Saudi Arabia would be willing to go in the escalating confrontation. Analyst Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute said it was unclear whether the Saudi leadership had “thought through an escalation of the scale they’re hinting at”. Compounding concerns of an escalation, she said, is that US President Donald Trump’s administration has also taken a hard line against Iran “and may not send a deterrent message to Saudi”.
The Saudi-Iran rivalry also played out this weekend in the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri, a protege of Riyadh who said he was stepping down because of the “grip” of Iran and its ally Hezbollah on the country. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah hit back on Sunday, saying Hariri’s resignation had been “imposed” by Saudi Arabia. Iran rejected Hariri’s words as “baseless” and said his resignation was “designed to create tensions in Lebanon and in the region”. Hariri, who announced his resignation in Riyadh, yesterday met Saudi King Salman and “reviewed the situation in Lebanon”, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported.
SPA said four government ministers attended the meeting, including Jubeir and Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer Al-Sabhan, who predicted on Lebanon’s MTV station last week that “astonishing developments” were coming for Lebanon. Yesterday’s SPA photos appeared aimed at dispelling rumors, acknowledged by the press agency, that the prime minister was being held in Saudi Arabia against his will. Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who must accept the resignation for it to be valid, said in a statement Saturday that he would await Hariri’s return to consider the matter.
Meanwhile, a helicopter carrying a high-ranking Saudi prince and other government officials crashed Sunday in the kingdom’s south, reportedly killing all eight people aboard. The Saudi Interior Ministry said early yesterday that the crash happened in Saudi Arabia’s Asir province as the official took part in a tour of local projects near Abha, some 160 km from the border with Yemen. Security officials gave no cause for the crash, but said a search of the wreckage was underway. In Yemen, Houthi officials offered no immediate comment on the crash, while the group’s Al-Masirah satellite news channel reported only that the crash had occurred.
The Saudi-owned satellite news channel Al-Arabiya, based in Dubai, reported that the crash killed Prince Mansour bin Muqrin and seven others. Prince Mansour was the deputy governor of Asir province. Prince Mansour was the son of Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, a former intelligence service director and one-time crown prince. Prince Muqrin was removed as crown prince in April 2015 by his half-brother King Salman in favor of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a counterterrorism czar and interior minister. But in June, King Salman also ousted Prince Mohammed in favor of the king’s 32-year-old son, the now-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as first in line to the throne.
The kingdom is in the midst of an unprecedented purge of its upper ranks, with dozens of senior figures arrested at the weekend, as Crown Prince Mohammed consolidates his hold on power. Prince Mohammed, who is also defense minister, is seen as a key supporter of the intervention in Yemen. The campaign of mass arrests widened yesterday after a top entrepreneur was reportedly held in the biggest anti-corruption purge of the kingdom’s affluent elite in its modern history.
King Salman yesterday swore in new officials to take over from a powerful prince and former minister believed to be detained in the sweep. SPA released images of the king swearing in new National Guard chief Prince Khalid bin Ayyaf Al-Muqrin and new Economy and Planning Minister Mohammad Al-Tuwaijri. Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who for the past four years had led the National Guard, and Adel Fakeih, who was minister of economy since April, were both reportedly arrested. Prince Miteb was once considered a contender for the throne.
Prominent Saudi columnist Jamal Kashoggi applauded the campaign, but warned: “He is imposing very selective justice.” “The crackdown on even the most constructive criticism – the demand for complete loyalty with a significant ‘or else’ – remains a serious challenge to the crown prince’s desire to be seen as a modern, enlightened leader,” he wrote in the Washington Post. “The buck stops at the leader’s door. He is not above the standard he is now setting for the rest of his family, and for the country.”
The Saudi stock index initially fell 1.5 percent in early trade but closed effectively flat, which asset managers attributed to buying by government-linked funds. Al Tayyar Travel plunged 10 percent in the opening minutes after the company quoted media reports as saying board member Nasser bin Aqeel al-Tayyar had been detained in the anti-corruption drive. Saudi Aseer Trading, Tourism and Manufacturing and Red Sea International separately reported normal operations after the reported detentions of board members Abdullah Saleh Kamel, Khalid Al-Mulheim and Amr Al-Dabbagh. Saudi banks have begun freezing suspects’ accounts, sources told Reuters.
Dozens of people have been detained in the crackdown, which have alarmed much of the traditional business establishment. Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Saudi Arabia’s best-known international investor, is also being held. The attorney general said yesterday detainees had been questioned and “a great deal of evidence” had been gathered. “Yesterday does not represent the start, but the completion of Phase One of our anti-corruption push,” Saud Al-Mojeb said. Probes were done discreetly “to preserve the integrity of the legal proceedings and ensure there was no flight from justice.”
Investigators had been collecting evidence for three years and would “continue to identify culprits, issue arrest warrants and travel restrictions and bring offenders to justice”, anti-graft committee member Khalid bin Abdulmohsen Al-Mehaisen said. The front page of leading Saudi newspaper Okaz challenged businessmen to reveal the sources of their assets, asking: “Where did you get this?” Another headline from Saudi-owned al-Hayat warned: “After the launch (of the anti-corruption drive), the noose tightens, whomever you are!” A no-fly list has been drawn up and security forces in some Saudi airports were barring owners of private jets from taking off without a permit, pan-Arab daily Al-Asharq Al-Awsat said.
The moves consolidate Prince Mohammed’s control of the internal security and military institutions, which had long been headed by separate powerful branches of the ruling family. Consultancy Eurasia Group said the “clearly politicized” anti-corruption campaign was a step towards separating the Al Saud family from the state: “Royal family members have lost their immunity, a long standing golden guarantee”. Yet many analysts were puzzled by the targeting of technocrats like Fakieh and prominent businessmen on whom the kingdom is counting to boost the private sector and wean the economy off oil. – Agencies