By Stephen Kalin
RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s King Salman called on the international community on Monday to halt Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme, and he also reiterated the kingdom’s support for U.N. efforts to end the war in Yemen.
The king’s remarks to the Shura Council, a top advisory body to the government, were his first public comments since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the country’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, which sparked a global outcry and strained Riyadh’s ties with the West.
King Salman, who made no direct mention of the Khashoggi affair during his speech, condemned the actions of Saudi Arabia’s arch-foe Iran, which is competing with the kingdom for influence across the region including in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
“The Iranian regime has always intervened in the internal affairs of other countries, sponsored terrorism, created chaos and devastation in many countries in the region,” the 82-year-old monarch said.
“The international community has to work to put an end to the Iranian nuclear programme and stop its activities that threaten security and stability,” he added.
The king said Saudi Arabia supported U.N. efforts to end the conflict in Yemen, where a Saudi-backed coalition has been battling Iran-aligned Houthi rebels for nearly four years to restore the internationally-recognised government.
“Our standing by Yemen was not an option but a duty to support the Yemeni people in confronting the aggression of Iranian-backed militias,” he said.
Riyadh has come under growing international criticism for its conduct of that war, which has brought impoverished Yemen to the brink of famine and killed many civilians. The kingdom’s reputation has been further battered by the Khashoggi murder.
The king, who had largely stepped back from active political life, has intervened to try to defuse the crisis, the biggest to hit Saudi Arabia in a generation, and shore up the power of his son and heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Riyadh initially offered numerous contradictory explanations for Khashoggi’s disappearance, before saying last week he had been killed and his body dismembered when “negotiations” to convince him to return to Saudi Arabia failed. The public prosecutor said it would seek the death penalty for five suspects in the case.
King Salman praised the Saudi judiciary and prosecution service in his speech on Monday for “performing the duties they were entrusted with”, without elaborating.
In addition to the Khashoggi investigation, the public prosecutor was involved in an anti-corruption campaign ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed last year, in which scores of princes, ministers and businessmen were arrested.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said the order for the killing of Khashoggi came from the highest level of the Saudi leadership but probably not from King Salman, putting the spotlight instead on the 33-year-old crown prince.
U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested ultimate responsibility lies with the prince as de facto ruler.
In a rare measure against an important security and economic partner, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions last week on 17 Saudi officials for their alleged role in the killing, including a top aide to the crown prince.
(Writing by Hadeel Al Sayegh and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Gareth Jones)