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