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US wants ‘strong’ Saudi Arabia — Mattis

By AFP - Apr 19,2017 - Last updated at Apr 19,2017

United States Secretary of Defence James Mattis (left) meets Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (right) at Al Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday (Anadolu Agency photo)

RIYADH — The United States wants to see a strong Saudi Arabia, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said during talks Wednesday aimed at reinvigorating the Riyadh-Washington alliance.

Mattis, meeting top officials in the Saudi capital, also hinted that President Donald Trump could visit the kingdom, a longtime US ally which has welcomed Washington's firmer line against common adversary Iran.

"It is in our interest to see a strong Saudi Arabia," Mattis said at the start of talks with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the defence minister, pointing to the country's "military security services and secret services”.

 "What we can do here today could actually open the door possibly to bringing our president to Saudi Arabia," Mattis said.

Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, earlier met King Salman at Al Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, where he told the monarch: "It's good to be back."

Mattis commanded troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He arrived in the kingdom on Tuesday afternoon to listen to Saudi leaders and learn "what are their priorities”, an American defence official said earlier.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have a decades-old relationship but ties between Riyadh and Washington became increasingly frayed during the administration of president Barack Obama.

Saudi leaders felt Obama was reluctant to get involved in the civil war in Syria and was tilting towards Riyadh's regional rival Iran.

The kingdom "felt marginalised" during international negotiations on a nuclear accord with Shiite Iran, the defence official said.

That deal, signed in July 2015 by the Obama administration, saw the lifting of international sanctions in exchange for guarantees that Tehran would not pursue a nuclear weapons capability.

 

New Iran sanctions 

 

Saudi leaders worry about Iran interfering in Arab countries by using local Shiite communities, as in Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen.

Bordering Saudi Arabia, Yemen has been torn for more than two years by a civil war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels, their allies, and pro-government forces aided by a Saudi-led military coalition that receives some military support from the US.

The Saudis have found a more favourable ear in Washington under Trump, who has denounced Iran’s “harmful influence” in the Middle East.

In February, Trump imposed new sanctions on Tehran after a ballistic missile test launch, and in response to its support for Yemen’s rebels.

Prince Mohammed told Mattis that Saudi Arabia and the United States are working to counter challenges in the region, including “the malign activities of Iran” and to bring stability “to the most important straits.” 

The US military is watching Houthi activities along the strategic Bab Al Mandab strait connecting the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean.

Yemeni rebels in late January attacked a Saudi warship in the Red Sea, and they are also believed to have fired missiles towards US warships in the area.

The United States accuses the insurgents of deploying coastal defence missiles and other weapons which threaten free navigation in the waters which are vital to global trade.

 

Anti-Daesh campaign 

 

Trump’s Yemen focus has so far been on a major escalation of attacks against extremists from Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Pentagon officials have so far remained cautious on what they might do to support Saudi Arabia.

The Trump administration could, for example, lift a freeze on the delivery of precision guided bombs to the kingdom.

Obama’s government blocked their transfer in December because of concerns over civilian casualties in Yemen.

 

After Saudi Arabia, Mattis will travel Thursday to Egypt and then to Israel on Friday before returning to the Gulf Saturday for talks in Qatar.

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