RIYADH: US President Barack Obama said yesterday that Washington and Gulf Arab states were united against the Islamic State group as he sought to overcome strains on Iran to boost efforts against the jihadists. In Riyadh for talks hosted by Saudi Arabia, Obama said the United States still has “serious concerns” about Iran, but insisted no country has an interest in conflict with Iran.
Meanwhile, His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah arrived in Kuwait, yesterday 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 U.S. President Barack Obama, King Mohammed VI of Morocco and the GCC leaders.
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 rooted in US overtures to their regional rival Tehran.
With the IS jihadists suffering a series of recent setbacks in areas under their control 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 (GCC), 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. “Given the ongoing threats in the region, the United States will continue to increase our security cooperation with our GCC partners including helping them improve their own capacity to defend themselves,” Obama said.
Seated beside Saudi King Salman inside a Riyadh royal palace, Obama said concerns remained about Iran’s “destabilizing activities” despite its landmark nuclear agreement with world powers and the lifting of sanctions. “Even with the nuclear deal we recognize collectively that we continue to have serious concerns about Iranian behavior,” 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, who 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.
Ben Rhodes, a close adviser to Obama, said there were “political steps that can be taken,” as Iraq would need assistance to hold on to and rebuild areas reclaimed from IS.
Obama said a cessation of hostilities in Syria is “obviously under tremendous strain” as fighting has intensified in some areas despite efforts to hold peace talks in Geneva.
Washington hopes that in both Syria and Yemen-where a Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes against Iran-backed rebels in March last year-an end to broader fighting can lead to a greater focus on the battle against IS and other jihadists.
UN-backed peace negotiations between Yemen’s warring sides were due to start in Kuwait yesterday, and Obama “urged all parties” to abide by a ceasefire that began on April 11. Jihadists-including the powerful local branch of Al-Qaeda-have exploited the Yemen conflict to strengthen their presence in the country’s south. Both Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and US Secretary of State John Kerry joined Obama in Riyadh, holding meetings with top officials.
The diplomatic offensive followed months of rising tensions between the United States and the Gulf monarchies, which have for decades enjoyed strong security ties.
Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the kingdom’s former intelligence chief, told CNN that Obama’s conduct and declarations have made Saudi Arabia realise that the relationship has changed. “My personal view is that America has changed,” he said. “How far we can go with our dependence on America? How much can we rely on steadfastness from American leadership? What is it that makes for our joint benefits to come together? These are things that we have to recalibrate,” the senior royal said.
In highly unusual moves, Saudi state news channel Al-Ekhbaria did not broadcast either the start or the summit meeting or Obama’s airport arrival on Wednesday.
At a press conference after the summit, Obama said talk of strains “was always overblown”, saying there were “tactical” differences on how to deal with Iran. Obama also told the summit that Washington and Gulf states would work together to lessen the impact of the dramatic fall in oil prices since early 2014.
The United States and GCC “will launch a new high-level economic dialogue with a focus on adjusting to lower oil prices, increasing our economic ties and supporting GCC reforms”, Obama said.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, and its petroleum-rich neighbours have been forced to cut subsidies and adopt other measures to deal with deficits caused by plunging oil prices, which make up the bulk of their revenues. -AFP