Iran, Saudi Arabia escalate war of words

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RIYADH, Nov 25, (Agencies): Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has denounced Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the “new Hitler of the Middle East”, as tensions simmer between the regional rivals. Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in a bitter war of words after a missile fired from Yemen was intercepted near Riyadh airport on Nov 4.

The missile was claimed by Yemen’s Tehran- backed Houthi rebels. Iran’s “supreme leader is the new Hitler of the Middle East”, Prince Mohammed told The New York Times in an interview published Thursday.

“We learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East.” Tehran has strongly denied supplying any missiles to the rebels, and President Hassan Rouhani has warned Saudi Arabia of Iran’s “might”. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman reacted scathingly to the interview, comparing Prince Mohammed to “a dictator” and urging him to “reflect on the fate” of some leaders in the Middle East in recent years.

“The immature, unpredictable and senseless behaviour and remarks by the Saudi crown prince result in no one in the world giving the slightest credit to comments of this kind,” spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said in a statement.

“Errors due to the adventurism of the Saudi crown prince — the latest being the scandal of (Saudi) interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs — have been the cause of great problems for Saudi Arabia’s traditional allies,” he said.

The spike in Saudi-Iran tensions coincides with Prince Mohammed’s new anti-corruption purge, which saw around 200 elites including princes, ministers and business tycoons arrested or sacked earlier this month.

The prince described as “ludicrous” reports equating the crackdown to a power grab, saying that many of those detained at Riyadh’s opulent Ritz-Carlton hotel had already pledged allegiance to him. “A majority of the royal family” is behind him, the prince said, dismissing longstanding rumours of internal opposition to his meteoric rise. He said 95 percent of those detained agree to a “settlement”, or handing over ill-gotten gains to the Saudi state treasury. Saudi Arabia’s attorney general estimates at least $100 billion has been misused in embezzlement or corruption over several decades.

Authorities have frozen the bank accounts of the accused and warned assets related to the alleged graft cases would be seized as state property, in what they describe as a top-down approach to battling endemic corruption. “About one percent are able to prove they are clean and their case is dropped right there. About four percent say they are not corrupt and with their lawyers want to go to court,” the prince said.

“We have experts making sure no businesses are bankrupted in the process,” he added. The purge has triggered uncertainty among businesses that could lead to capital flight or derail reforms, experts say, at a time when the kingdom is seeking to attract badly needed investments to offset a protracted oil slump.

In other news, the vast majority of about 200 businessmen and officials implicated in a sweeping crackdown on corruption are agreeing to settlements under which they hand over assets to the government, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told the New York Times.

“We show them all the files that we have and as soon as they see those about 95 percent agree to a settlement,” which means signing over cash or shares in their companies to the Saudi Treasury, the newspaper quoted Prince Mohammed as saying. “About 1 percent are able to prove they are clean and their case is dropped right there. About 4 percent say they are not corrupt and with their lawyers want to go to court.” Prince Mohammed repeated a previous official estimate that the government could eventually recover around $100 billion of illicit money through settlements.

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