According to a recent op-ed piece by The New York Times, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has characterized Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as “the new Hitler of the Middle East.”

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei new Hitler
Tasnim News Agency [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Crown Prince’s statement comes amid incredibly heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the former frequently accusing Iran of fueling instability across the region. Referring to Iran’s increasing influence over neighboring Middle Eastern countries, the Crown Prince said that Saudi Arabia’s biggest concern should be to make sure “what happened in Europe” doesn’t happen in the Middle East.

“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,” he said, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the second Supreme leader of Iran who has been in power since 1989.

The sharp statement against the Ayatollah comes followed an even sharper accusation of Iran the Crown Prince has made earlier this month. According to CNN’s report from Nov.7, the crown prince told British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson that Iran’s recent actions “may be considered an act of war against the kingdom.” With the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen claiming responsibility for the thwarted missile strike on the Riyadh airport earlier in November, the Crown Prince accused Iran of being accountable for the attack.

Despite the fact that the Crown Prince’s statement might come off as a bit unceremonious, in reality, it represents a culmination of the tensions between the two Middle Eastern powerhouses.

Where and how the statement was made might unveil its purpose

With both local and international media covering Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s statement in a rather sensational manner, one couldn’t help but think it was just another attempt to provoke the Iranian establishment.

However, the Prince’s allegations against Iran’s leader tell more about Saudi Arabia’s long-term political strategy than they do about its short-term plans for Iran.

The statement is an excerpt of Prince bin Salman’s interview with Thomas L. Friedman, a New York Times op-ed columnist. In the opinion piece, which focuses on analyzing Saudi Arabia’s recent modernization efforts, the Prince gives his first public interview to the foreign press since his government shakedown of early November.

Speaking about the detainment of dozens of Saudi officials and ministers, the Prince stated that the move was not a “power grab”, but an effort to eliminate the corruption he says has destroyed the Saudi Government. This move has brought the Prince an overwhelming support from the nation’s young population, who are, according to the report, clearly fed up with the injustice spread across Saudi bureaucracy.

With the majority of the population endorsing the Prince and his anti-corruption actions, his latest effort to bring Saudi Islam to a more moderate orientation was also met with a surprising amount of support.
The current strict Sharia laws imposed in Saudi Arabia give its officials very little leverage in the when criticizing the actions of their more extremist Shia neighbors. A general lack of revenue from tourism and the reluctance western startups and investors show towards doing business in Saudi Arabia also stem from its strict religious atmosphere.

During the Future Investment Initiative held in October, Prince bin Salman shared his desire to transform Saudi Islam to a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.” Referring to the state of the kingdom before the 1979 Qatif Uprising, the Prince said that he is not “reinterpreting” Islam, but rather restoring it to its origins.

By labeling Iran’s state and military leader as being the “new Hitler of the Middle East,” the Prince has made his efforts to distance the majority Sunni kingdom from the more extremist Shia states lead by Iran.

His remarks are not impulsive provocations, but a calculated, well-thought-out rhetoric that has a very clear goal of establishing Saudi Arabia as a more moderate, Western-leaning challenger to Iran’s looming influence over Islam in the Middle East.