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US foreign policy

Ahead of Biden trip to Saudi Arabia, White House official says US committed to allies

“We’re not going anywhere. The Middle East is too important of a region, not just to our national interest, but to the rest of the world,” NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told Al Arabiya.

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A senior White House official told Al Arabiya on Tuesday that US President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, would reassure Washington’s allies that it was “not going anywhere.”

The White House and the Royal Court announced earlier that King Salman invited Biden to Jeddah to participate in the GCC+3 summit.

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Nine different heads of state will be present, including the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

“There’s going to be a very robust agenda, and they’re going to talk about counterterrorism, Iran’s destabilizing behavior, climate,” said John Kirby, the newly appointed National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications at the White House.

Kirby told Al Arabiya that meetings would also focus on the war in Yemen, crediting the Saudi leadership for playing a key role in securing a ceasefire for the first time in nearly seven years. The UN-brokered ceasefire between warring sides was initially for two months before being extended for another 60 days last week. “That’s a huge development in the region,” Kirby said.

Energy will “of course” be talked about when Biden meets Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Multiple attempts by US officials to get Saudi Arabia to up its oil production amid the Russian invasion, including trips to Saudi Arabia by the top White House official for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, and US energy advisor Amos Hochstein, came up empty-handed.

But OPEC+, led by Saudi Arabia, announced plans to increase output by 50 percent this summer after soaring gas prices were witnessed partly due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“So, there’s an awful lot [to discuss], but the President is also looking forward to having a discussion with King Salman and his team as well in a bilateral setting. And he’s very grateful for the invitation of the King to come to Riyadh,” Kirby said.

Iran and its proxies

Kirby condemned the hundreds of drone and missile attacks that Saudi Arabia has experienced, mainly carried out by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

US and Saudi officials have been discussing ways to ensure Riyadh has what it needs to defend itself and its territories.

Kirby, until recently the Pentagon press secretary, said the Saudis had been defending themselves “bravely and skillfully.”

He also pointed out that the US was mindful of these threats because of the estimated 70,000 Americans living in Saudi Arabia. “It certainly matters because we have so many Americans that live there, not to mention many troops that the Saudis are host to,” he said regarding US defense support for Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, a key ally

While it’s no secret that ties between the US and Saudi Arabia quickly soured following Biden’s election, some US officials have voiced support for strengthened relations between Washington and Riyadh.

Biden and his administration repeatedly said they wanted to “recalibrate” ties with Saudi Arabia and made several foreign policy moves targeting Riyadh. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and soaring energy prices being felt by Americans, Biden sought Riyadh’s help.

Kirby touched on the bilateral ties, calling US alliances and partnerships in the Middle East “absolutely vital.”

“The Saudis have been a key strategic partner in the region for eight decades,” Kirby said.

He did admit that there were some complexities in the relationship, but “you don’t necessarily have to agree with every partner on every issue.”

According to Kirby, the Biden administration is keen on ensuring that the US relationship with Saudi Arabia stays “not only intact but is improved and bolstered going forward.”

The White House official also spoke highly of the Saudi naval forces, saying that the US would look at ways to improve interoperability between regional partners.

Under Biden, the US has been criticized for what has been seen as a certain level of disengagement from the Middle East as it shifts focus to threats from China and Russia. After more than a year in office, Biden will be making his first trip to the region with stops in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia.

“I can assure you this president is going to make sure that we maintain… focus on the region,” Kirby said. “We’re not going anywhere. The Middle East is too important of a region, not just to our national interest, but to the rest of the world.”

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