Mattis sees Saudi Arabia ‘helping across the region’

Sunday 23/04/2017
Renewed bonds. US Defence Secretary James Mattis (L) at the end of a meeting with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, in Riyadh, on April 19. (AFP)

London - In a trip designed to reaffirm ties with Washington’s biggest regional ally, US Defence Sec­retary James Mattis travelled to Riyadh, where he met with some of the kingdom’s most power­ful figures on issues that included strengthening the decades-old US-Saudi security partnership.

Mattis was received at Riyadh’s Al-Yamamah Palace by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on April 19 for a meeting that centred on en­hancing relations, particularly in defence. The US defence secretary also met with his Saudi counter­part, Deputy Crown Prince Moham­med bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said the two officials discussed chal­lenges facing the region, especially in dealing with Iran and efforts to combat terrorism.

Mattis said his talks with the king and the deputy crown prince could not have gone better.

“They were highly productive in terms of outcomes, to include how we’re going to work together with one of our best counterterrorism partners against the enemy,” he said.

Mattis, a retired Marine general, commanded troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He is familiar with the geopolitical dynamics of the region and is known for being an unabashed critic of Iran, a stance he highlighted during his Saudi visit.

“Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran,” Mattis said, giving examples of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi militia in Yemen and various mili­tias in Syria fighting in support of President Bashar Assad’s regime.

“We’ll have to overcome Iran’s efforts to destabilise yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbol­lah,” Mattis said referring to the conflict in Yemen.

“The bottom line is we’re on the right path forward. We just have to get down the path and get this in front of a negotiated peace by the United Nations, which is what we stand for and all nations out here that want the best for Yemen stand for,” he added.

The US Department of Defence said the aim of Mattis’s five-country trip was to reaffirm key US military alliances, engage with strategic partners in the Middle East and Af­rica and discuss cooperative efforts to counter destabilising activities and defeat extremist terror organi­sations.

The fact that Mattis began his re­gional tour in Saudi Arabia carried significant weight with Saudi ana­lysts.

Salman al-Ansari, president of the Washington-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC) said: “This reflects the US position towards Saudi Arabia and shows the extent to which Washington believes in re­lying on Riyadh’s vision to resolve all the conflicts in the region.

“Saudi Arabia has proven that it is historically the United States’ most trusted and experienced ally [in the region] and that Saudi Arabia’s se­curity objectives are in line with the United States’ own security objec­tives and vice-versa.”

Relations between Gulf Arab countries and the United States were strained under President Barack Obama’s administration due to what was perceived as a US tilt towards Iran at the expense of Gulf Arab interests. Relations hit their lowest point in March 2016 when Obama referred to several tradition­al US allies, including Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, as “free rid­ers” in a magazine interview.

Saudi Arabia saw the United States scale back support in the conflict with Iran-allied Houthi re­bels in Yemen. This was capped by the Obama administration’s deci­sion to halt a $300 million sale of precision-guided missiles, a move unfrozen by President Donald Trump.

However, efforts to review and restate the decades-old relation­ship picked up pace with the arrival of the new administration in Wash­ington. Mattis’s visit encapsulated those efforts.

“What was really obvious to me today was the regional leadership role of the Saudis and how they’re helping across the region,” said Mattis, adding that Riyadh was supporting Jordan in caring for refugees of the Syrian conflict and also providing energy supplies and other support to Egypt “as they work through some really tough fi­nancial times.”

On the day Mattis arrived in Ri­yadh, the Trump administration announced it had ordered a review of the Iran nuclear deal by the Na­tional Security Council.

“It was a terrible agreement,” Trump said at a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. “We’re analysing it very, very carefully and will have some­thing to say about it in the not-too-distant future.”