Saudi Arabia and UAE call for de-escalation after Soleimani killing

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - There are fears in the Middle East that Iranian retaliation might target US interests or soft targets in the region.

A call for moderation. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash.(AP)

LONDON - Following the assassination of the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force, officials from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates urged de-escalation of tensions to avert further confrontations.

A US air strike January 3 near Baghdad International Airport killed Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani and several of his Iraqi and Lebanese military associates, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy chief of the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq. The death of Soleimani was said to eliminate the architect behind Iran’s regional interventions.

However, with Tehran warning of “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s killing, there are fears in the Middle East that Iranian retaliation might target US interests or soft targets in the region.

Saudi state news agency SPA quoted an official source as saying Saudi Arabia had followed developments in Iraq “that came as a result of escalation, tensions and terrorist acts” and about whose repercussions Riyadh had warned. The source acknowledged threats faced in the region but urged restraint to prevent the “unbearable consequences” of further escalation.

In a call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz discussed reducing tensions and what could be done to “maintain peace and stability in the Middle East in this turbulent period,” an official statement said.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash called for “wisdom and moderation” rather than “confrontation and escalation.”

News of Soleimani’s death dominated media attention in the Gulf region where the general was perceived as a nemesis, nurturing Iran’s hostile strategy based on the use of proxies.

Most Gulf news outlets made Soleimani’s killing their most prominent articles.

“This was a huge blow to not only the revolutionary guards and Iran, but their proxies as well,” Yemeni Information Under-Secretary Najib Ghallab said on Al Arabiya.

Iran named Brigadier-General Esmail Qaani as the new al-Quds leader. Ghallab said that move was to lessen the blow of Soleimani’s death among supporters and to possibly prepare for retaliation.

“Iran does have the will or the capabilities to retaliate directly but will do so via its proxies,” Ghallab said. “I imagine in the coming period they will focus their operations in Iraq to impede protests there and in Yemen, where it will hope to continue its policy of chaos.”

Within an hour of the first news of Soleimani’s death, the Arabic hashtag “The _Destruction _of _Qassim _Soleimani” was trending heavily.

Saudi and UAE Twitter users marked the news with celebratory memes with pictures of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Gulf Twitter users forwarded memes wishing US President Donald a happy new year. Other Tweets were macabre, including some showing uncensored photos of what was said to be Soleimani’s severed hand.

In an English tweet, Saudi user Eid Al-Harbi wrote: “The #Iran regime is the Middle East cancer, killing #QassemSoleimani is like killing bin Laden. He was a terrorist.”

Soleimani’s record of antagonism to Saudi Arabia is unparalleled. During his time as al-Quds commander, the group was linked to numerous terror plots.

Just before Soleimani took over al-Quds, the force was implicated in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, which a US court said Iran and al-Quds Brigade were responsible for. Al-Quds was also believed to be behind the failed 2011 assassination attempt on the current Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir, who was the kingdom’s ambassador to the United States at the time.

In Yemen, which sees an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates fighting on behalf of the recognised government of Yemen against Iran-allied Houthi rebels, al-Quds was instrumental in funding, arming and training the rebels’ military capabilities.

Last September, Saudi and US officials blamed Iran for a drone and cruise missile attack on a Saudi oil facility, which cut production 50%.

A few hours after the Aramco attack, Soleimani posted a video using religious imagery to praise the Houthi rebels as part of the Islamic Republic’s “expanding” network of followers.

Mohammed Alkhereiji is the Arab Weekly’s Gulf section editor.

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