RIYADH, April 21, (Agencies): US President Barack Obama pledged to “deter aggression” against Gulf Arab allies increasingly concerned about Iran’s influence in the region but did not shy away from raising sensitive issues in talks aimed at addressing recent strains in US-Gulf ties. Obama’s visit to Riyadh to meet Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders was aimed at allaying fears in Saudi Arabia and its neighbours that Washington’s commitment to their security had diminished. The president also hoped to use his fourth and probably final trip to the kingdom to dispel some of the frustration felt by Gulf countries toward his administration, in what one senior US official said was a chance to “clear the air”. “I reaffirmed the policy of the United States to use all elements of our power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies,” Obama said after the summit on Thursday.
However, he also raised the issue of sectarianism, for which he has chided Gulf states in the past on grounds it fuels Islamist militancy, saying “the prosperity and stability of the region depends on countries treating all their citizens fairly and … sectarianism is an enemy of peace and prosperity”. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman lauded the summit as “constructive and fruitful”, according to the Saudi Press Agency, and pledged the “desire and commitment” of GCC countries to continue developing their ties with the United States.
Footage and photographs aired on state media showed the leaders at a large circular table under a chandelier, with Obama sitting with King Salman on his left and the Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan on his right.
The Middle East is mired in a contest for influence between a bloc of mostly Sunni countries, including the conservative, pro-Western Gulf monarchies, and revolutionary Shi’ite Iran and its allies. Most of the GCC states, which include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, have been bitterly disappointed in Obama’s presidency, during which they believe the United States has pulled back from the region, giving more space to Iran. They were also upset by Obama’s remarks in a magazine interview that appeared to cast them as “free-riders” in US security efforts and urged them to “share” the region with Tehran. In his remarks after the talks, Obama acknowledged the strains that have afflicted ties between Washington and its Gulf partners, even as they have worked together on shared concerns such as the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
“What is true between the United States and the GCC, as is true with all of our allies and friends, is that at any point of time there are going to be differences,” Obama said. But he also said: “I think that a lot of the strain was always overblown”. In Kuwait, His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah has sent a cable to Obama commending the fruitful outcome of the USGCC Summit held in Riyadh on Thursday.
HH the Amir said the results of today’s summit will help enhance the historical, strong and distinguished ties between the GCC member states and the US, as well as bolstering bilateral strategic ties and serving joint interests. HH the Amir wished more progress and prosperity for the US, and further growth for the bilateral ties. HH the Amir arrived in Kuwait, on Thursday, after participating in the joint US-Gulf Summit.
The summit, which tackled strengthening strategic partnerships between the GCC and the United States, was attended by Obama, King Mohammed VI of Morocco and the GCC leaders. HH the Amir was received at the airport by His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, National Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim, His Highness Sheikh Nasser Al- Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Minister of Amiri Diwan Affairs Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister and Acting Oil Minister Anas Al-Saleh, senior officers in the Army, Police and National Guard.
HH the Amir was accompanied to the summit by First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sheikh Mohammad Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Sheikh Khaled Al- Jarrah Al-Sabah, Director of His Highness the Amir’s Office Ahmad Fahad Al-Fahad, Amiri Diwan Advisor Mohammad Abu Al-Hassan, head of Amiri Protocols Khaled Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah Al- Nasser, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Suleiman Al-Jarallah, head of media and cultural affairs at the Amiri Diwan Yosef Al-Roomi, head of political and economic affairs at the Amiri Diwan Sheikh Fawaz Saud Nasser Saud Al-Sabah, and other senior officials.
HH the Amir sent a cable of appreciation to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud for his great hospitality during participation in the US-Gulf Summit. The summit, which tackled strengthening strategic partnerships between the GCC and the United States, was attended by Obama, King Mohammed VI of Morocco and the GCC leaders.
HH the Amir also expressed appreciation for meeting with the GCC leaders and the US President during the Summit. He lauded the outcome of the summit that would support ties and promote strategic partnership. Meanwhile, Obama said Thursday the United States is united with Gulf Arab nations in fighting the Islamic State group and sought to reassure them about US overtures to regional rival Iran.
In Riyadh for talks hosted by Iran’s arch-foe Saudi Arabia, Obama said Washington still had “serious concerns” about Tehran, but insisted no country had an interest in conflict with the Shiite power. Obama, on likely his final presidential visit to America’s historic Gulf allies, was in Riyadh seeking to reduce tensions with the Sunni Arab states. With the IS jihadists suffering a series of recent setbacks in Syria and Iraq, Washington is seeking more help from the oil-rich Gulf monarchies to keep up the pressure.
Speaking at the close of the summit of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, Obama played down any divisions and vowed continued cooperation in the battle against the extremists. “We remain united in our fight to destroy (IS),” he said, adding the US “will continue to increase our security cooperation with our GCC partners”. Saudi King Salman also spoke positively, stressing the GCC’s commitment to developing ties with the US “in order to serve common interests and security and peace”.
Seated beside Salman inside a Riyadh royal palace, Obama said concerns re-mained about Iran’s “destabilising activities” despite its landmark nuclear agreement with world powers and the lifting of sanctions. “Even with the nuclear deal we recognise collectively that we continue to have serious concerns about Iranian behaviour,” Obama said. He warned, however, of the risk of confrontation with Tehran.
“None of our nations have an interest in conflict with Iran,” Obama said. Iran’s emergence from international isolation following the nuclear deal has worried the Gulf monarchies, which fear Tehran will be emboldened to seek a still bigger regional role. Gulf Arab states and Iran back opposing sides in a range of Middle East conflicts, including in Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states belong to the US-led coalition that has been carrying out air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq since mid-2014. But US officials have urged them do to more, especially to support Baghdad, which is battling political chaos and an economic crisis as well as the extremists