Saudi Arabia is simply reacting to Iranian aggression, says foreign minister
Riyadh/Bonn — Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir said on Thursday the kingdom’s actions in the Middle East were a response to what he called Iranian aggression, and hinted at future action against Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
On the internal ructions in the country — where an anti-corruption purge has helped the king tighten his grip on power — Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said the crackdown involved just a few individuals, and would not hinder investment or affect the listing of oil company Aramco.
Long-standing archrivals Riyadh and Tehran are waging a contest for power on several fronts across the region, notably in Yemen and Lebanon.
"[The Iranians] are the ones who are acting in an aggressive manner. We are reacting to that aggression and saying: ‘Enough is enough. We’re not going to let you do this anymore,’" Jubeir told Reuters in an interview.
He said Saudi Arabia was consulting its allies about what leverage to use against Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah — an Iranian ally — to end its dominance in the small Mediterranean nation and intervention in other countries.
"We will make the decision when the time comes," he said, declining to detail what options were under consideration.
Saudi Arabia accused Lebanon last week of declaring war against it because of acts by Hezbollah, which is both a militant and political organisation represented in Lebanon’s parliament and government.
Jubeir said Hezbollah, which he described as a subsidiary of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard "doing Iran’s bidding", must disarm for Lebanon to stabilise.
"Wherever we see a problem, we see Hezbollah act as an arm or agent of Iran and this has to come to an end," he said.
Jubeir said Iran had harboured terrorists, assassinated diplomats and interfered in other countries’ affairs — charges Tehran denies.
"If you want us to deal with you as a good neighbour, act like one. But if you continue to act in an aggressive manner, we will push back," he said.
Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to power less than three years ago, Riyadh has struck a more aggressive posture towards Iran, launching a war in Yemen, leading a boycott of neighbouring Qatar in part for allegedly cozying up to Tehran, and ratcheting up its rhetoric against Hezbollah.
Saad al-Hariri, a Saudi ally, resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister on November 4, citing an assassination plot and accusing Iran and Hezbollah of sowing strife in the region.
Lebanese officials say Hariri had come under pressure from Riyadh, which they accuse of holding him captive despite his denials. Hariri said on Thursday he would visit Paris "very soon" and is expected to then return to Lebanon.
Jubeir repeated Saudi denials that Riyadh had forced Hariri to resign or held him against his will. "He’s a free man, he can do whatever he wants," Jubeir said.
Asked if Saudi Arabia wanted Hariri to withdraw his resignation, Jubeir said: "That is his decision to make."
Saudi’s top diplomat said reining in Hezbollah was the priority and the "facade" that the group needed to hold on to its weapons should be exposed.
"If they are to support the resistance, what are they doing in Syria fighting on behalf of the regime alongside the Iranian militias?" he said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad, who is battling rebels backed in part by Saudi Arabia.
"If they are there to protect Lebanon, what are they doing in Yemen?"
Saudi Arabia is backing Yemen’s internationally recognised government against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in a two-and-a-half-year war. The kingdom has been criticised for killing civilians in airstrikes there and blocking humanitarian aid.
Jubeir accused the Houthis, who control much of the country’s north, of besieging civilian areas and preventing supplies from coming in or out.
A military coalition led by the kingdom has enforced a near-blockade on Yemen, which aid agencies say has contributed to unleashing famine and disease on the already impoverished country.
It closed all air, land and sea access on November 6 following the interception of a missile fired towards Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has since said that aid can go through "liberated ports" but not Houthi-controlled Hodeidah, the conduit for the vast bulk of imports into Yemen.
Jubeir said the ports of Aden, Mokha and Midi along with Aden airport had resumed operations.
The heads of three UN agencies on Thursday warned "untold thousands" would die if the blockade stayed in place.
Jubeir also said domestic anti-corruption investigations which have netted senior Saudi princes, officials and businessmen in the past two weeks were ongoing. He rejected as "nonsense" criticisms the campaign fell foul of the law.
"Those who are guilty are likely to be referred to the courts and they will have fair, transparent trials," he said.
Falih said the corruption crackdown was way overdue and would also not have any impact on plans to float shares in oil giant Saudi Aramco.
"Everybody understands that this is a limited, domestic affair that the government is simply cleaning house," he said on the sidelines of the UN climate conference in Bonn, Germany.
Saudi Arabia’s future king has tightened his grip on power through an anti-corruption purge by arresting royals, ministers and investors, including billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal who is one of the kingdom’s most prominent businessmen.
The move by Prince Mohammed against Saudi’s political and business elite also targeted the head of the National Guard, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who was detained and replaced as minister of the powerful National Guard by Prince Khaled bin Ayyaf.
The energy minister said many foreign investors who had been doing business in Saudi Arabia for decades "will tell you that they have not seen corruption in their interactions with the Saudi government or with the Saudi entities".
"It [the crackdown] has no impact on foreign direct investment. It has no impact whatsoever on the kingdom’s openness, capital flows and our wide open investment environment," he added.
Saudi Arabia’s plan to float about 5% of Aramco in an initial public offering (IPO) is a centrepiece of Vision 2030, a wide-ranging reform plan to diversify the Saudi economy beyond oil.
Falih said a decision is yet to be made on where the listing would be made.
On the upcoming meeting of oil cartel Opec in Vienna at the end of the month to decide the fate of a global oil production cut, Falih said an extension beyond the March 2018 expiry was needed to rebalance the oil market.
Opec and 10 other oil producers led by Russia agreed last year to curb production by about 1.8-million barrels a day to get rid of an oversupply in the market.