US foreign policy

Senior US delegation in Riyadh shows commitment to region: Official

“The US is quite engaged and quite focused in the Middle East,” said the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.

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Senior US officials from the Biden administration are set to take part in security meetings this week in Riyadh to discuss Iran and other common threats, officials said, pushing back against claims that Washington is looking to distance itself from the Middle East.

The US government delegation scheduled to participate in the US-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Working Group meetings from February 13-16 will include officials from the Pentagon, State Department and the National Security Council.

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Integrated air and missile defense and maritime security will be two main topics discussed, according to US officials.

But other working groups will meet focusing on the continued threat by Iran as well as a counterterrorism group.

The US delegation for the working group on Iran will be US special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, while the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, Dana Stroul, will head the US delegation for other security working groups. Senior military and civilian officials will also partake in the meetings.

This week’s meetings will be the second time they meet after the first working group meetings took place last March.

Follow-up talks were slated to be held last October, but the US put off the meetings after growing frustrated with a decision by OPEC+ members to cut oil output. Washington slammed the oil-producing countries, alleging that their decision meant they were siding with Russia in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

But strengthening US-GCC ties has been a key priority for successive US administrations, including the Biden administration, according to a senior US defense official.

One of the main things to take note of during this week’s talks is that the narrative in the region that the US is disinterested, disengaged and leaving the Middle East is not valid, the official said.

“I think that the senior high level of officials spending their week in Riyadh meeting with officials from the GCC in this format really speaks to the fact that that is a false narrative,” the official told a small group of reporters at the Pentagon ahead of the meetings. “The US is quite engaged and quite focused in the Middle East,” said the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.

US ties with its traditional Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been turbulent since President Joe Biden took office.

Some of his first foreign policy moves included freezing arms sales to the two Gulf powerhouses, removing the Iran-backed Houthis from the terror blacklist, and ending US support for “offensive” operations of the Arab Coalition in Yemen.

But the Biden administration has grown frustrated with a lack of cooperation from Yemen’s Houthis as it tries to secure a peaceful solution to the yearslong war. Iran has also dented the Biden administration’s hopes of reviving the now-defunct 2015 nuclear deal.

And with Iran’s continued backing for attacks on US interests in the region as well as its allies, Washington is no longer prioritizing a nuclear deal with Tehran.

This week’s meetings are meant to display the importance that US officials are placing on ties with GCC countries. Representatives from NASA, the US Navy Central Command, US Air Force Central Command, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency and many others will be in Riyadh.

“That’s a pretty sizable grouping of defense, civilians and military officials all coming together to consult in this format,” the senior defense official said. “It’s because… we think, given the scale and scope of challenges facing the region today, those threats do not respect borders. These are issues that cannot be addressed exclusively on a unilateral or bilateral basis; they have to be addressed multilaterally.”

The official described the region’s collective defense as a priority, pointing out air, missile, and drone threats from Iran or proxies that it backs.

The official said that the US hopes to help the integration of information sharing and how to address these threats jointly.

While previous meetings have resulted in joint statements and plenty of ink on paper, the official said this week’s talks would result in something more tangible.

“There will be talk about concrete actions that everyone needs to take, not just what the United States is going to do, but what our partners are also willing to put into the game for all of us to build out a concrete regional security architecture that delivers for all the citizens of the region,” the official said.

Previous efforts to establish a so-called Middle East NATO have so far failed to garner enough support to materialize, with some regional countries suggesting it would harm efforts to lower tensions with Iran.

Asked if there was a different attitude in the region towards integrated air and missile defenses, the US official said the nature and origin of the threats are clear.

“The origin of those threats, for the most part, ties back to Iran. Whether it’s proliferation of advanced conventional weapons, proliferation of attack drones, aggression at sea, or funding, arming, equipping, training, and directing proxies and terrorist forces on land,” the official said in response to a question from Al Arabiya English. “So what we are proposing here is a regional security architecture… It’s not something the United States is imposing.”

The official said that the regional security architecture would be inherently defensive.

As for potential US weapons sales to countries in the Middle East, the official said there continues to be a hold on the sale of precision-guided munitions and small-diameter bombs to Saudi Arabia as they considered them offensive.

Moving forward, however, updating and upgrading secure communication systems, investing in maintenance sustainment, and training in air defenses is a must, the official said.

Investing in people and exchanging liaison officers will also be needed.

Nevertheless, the official said that proceeding with arms sales to regional allies is “absolutely critical” to moving forward. “And it’s a place where the Biden administration has said we want to make sure that our partners have what they need to defend themselves,” the official added.

No weapons sales are expected to be announced this week, but the US is encouraging allies like Israel to sell weapons to Gulf partners when necessary.

Political pressure and ties with GCC

While the Biden administration has repeatedly stated that it would review its relationship with Saudi Arabia, US officials have backtracked and softened their stance in recent months.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine significantly impacted the already-strained ties, with the White House accusing Riyadh of siding with Russia.

Saudi Arabia voted to condemn the Russian invasion on more than one occasion at the United Nations.

The senior US defense official was asked about the vulnerability of US-Saudi ties following the tensions witnessed following condemnations of Saudi Arabia by multiple Biden administration officials.

The defense official recognized the widespread argument that US policy swings from administration to administration but played down the claim.
“I would argue that a constant is the foundation of the security partnerships and the defense partnerships” from a security perspective.

“And I would argue that while leaders disagree from time to time on certain issues, it’s actually that foundation of military cooperation… that never stopped,” the official said.

Turning to the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the JCPOA, the official echoed what Biden administration officials have said in recent months: it is no longer a priority.

Iran’s unrealistic demands at the negotiating table, its violent suppression of protesters, and, most recently, its deepening military cooperation with Russia have put the deal on the backburner.

“But the Iranians are getting great practice on their lethal equipment in Ukraine that will only come back to make the threats in the Middle East more acute,” the official said.

This makes it even more critical for the US-GCC Iran working groups to look at ways of confronting this common threat.

“So how we think about confronting those threats… has remained a persistent and necessary pillar of activity, regardless of what was happening in Vienna. And it’s even more necessary now,” the official said.

China ‘pageantry’

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in December for the inaugural China-Arab Summit as Beijing looks to counter US influence in various regions throughout the world.

China and Saudi Arabia signed 12 agreements and MoUs in several fields, including hydrogen energy. Another 25 agreements between private sector companies in the two countries were signed.

But the senior US defense official coined those meetings as “pageantry” with “a lot of nice red carpets and a lot of tea drinking, but not a lot of concrete deliverables.”

Contrasting China with the US, the official said Washington was the only security convenor who could bring capabilities and other assets to work alongside partners to achieve a specific objective.

In an indirect jab at China, the official said Washington’s ties with its regional allies were not extractive or transactional. “[The relationship] is actually genuinely oriented towards what can enhance security and stability in the Middle East, the official said. “So, we think we’re a competitive partner of choice. And I think that the fact that so many senior leaders are spending their week in Riyadh, consulting with the GCC, underscores the point about our investment in the region.”

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