Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  at the 2017 Future Investment Initiative  conference in Riyadh. Photo: AFP
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the 2017 Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. Photo: AFP

Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old crown prince, two years after ruling out dialogue with his Shiite rival and threatening to make war inside Iran, has changed his tune.

“The political and peaceful solution is much better than the military one,” Mohammad bin Salman told the Columbia Broadcasting System’s 60 Minutes in an interview on Sunday.

The crown prince added that a recent ceasefire announced by the Houthis, the Iranian-backed rebels on his southern border, was a positive move that could pave the way for engagement.

Just two years earlier, the prince known as MBS had said there was no room for dialogue with his Shiite rival, framing differences in sectarian terms and asserting he had the willingness and ability to take a confrontation inside Iranian territory.

“We know that the aim of the Iranian regime is to reach the focal point of Muslims,” he said, referring to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, which his family has controlled for just over a century.

“We will not wait until the fight is inside Saudi Arabia and we will work so that the battle is on their side, inside Iran,” he said in May 2017.

The ambitious young prince was not only engaged in rhetoric, according to a report on Tuesday by Lebanese daily Al-Akbar based on a purported trove of leaked documents, but in the process of setting up a joint task force with Washington aimed at regime change in Tehran, or “at minimum” achieving instability within Iran’s borders.

Mohammad bin Salman was 31 at the time and fresh off a debut audience with the newly elected US President Donald Trump, brokered through his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The Saudi royals saw in the newly elected Trump the antithesis of his predecessor Barack Obama, who wanted them to “share the neighborhood” with Iran.

In May 2018, the United States unilaterally broke with the Iran nuclear deal, setting the stage for a reimposition of sanctions against the Islamic Republic. One year later, Washington ended sanctions waivers for Iranian oil, seeking to choke off the key export.

Game-changing attack

The so-called maximum pressure campaign by the Trump administration was meant to bring Tehran to its knees.

Instead, the attempt to choke off Iran’s oil exports has prompted attacks on foreign tankers in the Persian Gulf, threatened shipping through the critical Strait of Hormuz, and convinced Saudi Arabia’s chief regional ally the United Arab Emirates to re-engage with Iran.

Tehran’s response culminated on September 13 in a high-precision drone and missile attack on Saudi Aramco facilities, wiping out half of the kingdom’s refining capacity and showing the crown prince exactly what he stands to lose should he continue to press for confrontation.

While the Houthis claimed to have carried it out, the attack on Aramco’s northeastern facilities was believed to have originated from the north – just across the Gulf waters in Iran – rather than the southern extreme of the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen.

The Iranians are thought to have taken advantage of the US-supplied Patriot batteries being pointed to the south, and not the north, leaving incoming drones and missiles out of its 120-degree view until the last minute.

As well as highlighting holes in Saudi defenses, the attack added a new geopolitical risk for potential investors in Aramco, the state-run oil giant which the crown prince wants to privatize in order to finance his economic overhaul.

De-escalating in Yemen

The Saudis sought in vain to frame the Aramco attack as one on “global” oil supplies, but their ally Trump quickly discounted that argument, showing no interest in a military response and rather stressing America’s energy independence in the age of shale.

“We are now alone and we must manage accordingly. Yesterday’s allies are no longer the same as they were … their claims to stand with us in times of crisis has been exposed,” read an op-ed in the Saudi daily Okaz in the wake of the attack. 

With a newfound realization of his country’s exposure, the crown prince is now expressing hope for a peaceful solution with Iran.

The first arena for de-escalation is Yemen, where Riyadh and rival Tehran support opposing sides in a years-long conflict which has triggered massive famine and outrage in the US Congress against Saudi Arabia’s conduct.

The Houthi rebels in recent weeks have offered several olive branches, stating they will no longer carry attacks against Saudi territory.

On Monday, the Shiite group announced the release of hundreds of prisoners of war, including three Saudi nationals.

Saudi Arabia for its part gave a green-light to the participation of the Yemeni government in fresh peace talks with the Houthis in Oman – a mediator Riyadh has long avoided over closeness to Tehran.

Read: Saudi-Iran de-escalation begins in Yemen

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