Saudi Arabia has stepped up its bellicose rhetoric against Iran, with the powerful crown prince accusing the country’s regional arch-rival of supplying missiles to Yemeni rebels in “an act of war against the kingdom”.
Mohammed bin Salman, whose weekend crackdown on corruption was endorsed by US president Donald Trump, accused Iran of “direct military aggression”, according to the state news agency.
Saudi air defences on Saturday intercepted a ballistic missile fired from Yemen, causing debris to fall on an uninhabited area near Riyadh’s airport.
Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, on Monday accused Saudi Arabia of engaging in wars of aggression and regional bullying, describing its actions as “destabilising behaviour and risky provocations”, with Riyadh blaming the consequences on the Islamic republic.
The war of words across the Gulf has sent oil prices gyrating, with Brent crude hitting a new two-year high of $64.65 in London trading on Tuesday morning before sharply selling off before midday.
It also ratchets up the stakes in the stalemated proxy conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia in 2015 led a coalition of Sunni states against the Houthi rebels, who are allied to Shia-led Iran. The conflict, which has left more than 10,000 people dead, has created a humanitarian crisis in the impoverished Arab state.
Riyadh also accuses Iran of interference in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, further creating potential flash points as the two Gulf superpowers face off against one another for influence across the Arab world.
The crown prince’s raid on graft, seen by many as a move to sideline rival men of influence and to assert his authority, has shaken the Gulf monarchy, netting suspects such as billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, a son of the former king.
Mr Trump endorsed Saudi Arabia’s weekend move against corruption, defending the action against dozens of princes, ministers and business titans that has raised concerns among investors in the kingdom.
The US president on Monday night tweeted his “great confidence” in King Salman and the crown prince, saying “they know exactly what they are doing”.
“Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!” he added.
Mr Trump, who made his first overseas presidential visit to Riyadh in May, has developed a close relationship with the Saudi authorities, who have enthusiastically backed his hawkish stance on regional foe Iran, whom Riyadh accuses of interference across the Muslim world.
Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, travelled to Saudi Arabia in late October to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, according to a White House official.
Many Saudis have welcomed the crackdown as a long overdue bid to clean up financial abuse as the government continues austerity measures to deal with the sustained slump in oil prices.
Others, however, have been alarmed at the breadth of the purge, fearing a knock-on effect on confidence among the country’s business elite at a time when Prince Mohammed’s reform programme is seeking to boost investment.
Worries that the investigations amount to a politically inspired purge of potential opposition to the crown prince’s meteoric rise have been rejected by Saudi officials.
One Saudi official source told the Financial Times that the purpose of the measures against princes and officials was “to eradicate corruption and hold individuals accountable”.
The source expressed “surprise” at the statements of some media outlets “falsely claiming these measures were conducted for other purposes”.
Prince Alwaleed has been arrested on allegations including money laundering, bribery and extortion of officials, the source said.
Prince Miteb was arrested on claims of embezzlement, fraudulent employment and awarding contracts to his own companies, the source said.
The source denied that Prince Miteb was opposed to Prince Mohammed’s accession, saying he was “among the first officials” to pledge his allegiance.
Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the former deputy governor of Riyadh, is suspected of corruption related to the $22.5bn Riyadh Metro project, the source added, saying he had exploited his influence to award contracts to companies affiliated with the son of former King Abdullah.
These allegations, under investigation, could not be immediately verified and the suspects are not contactable.
The attorney-general has said the judicial process will run independently and all suspects are innocent until proven guilty.
Additional reporting by Barney Jopson in Washington
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