The United States wants to see a strong Saudi Arabia, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said during talks on Wednesday aimed at reinvigorating the Riyadh-Washington alliance.
Mattis, meeting the most powerful figures in the Saudi capital, also hinted that President Donald Trump could visit the kingdom, a longtime U.S. ally which has welcomed Washington’s firmer line against common adversary Iran. “It is in our interest to see a strong Saudi Arabia,” Mattis said at the start of talks with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defense minister, pointing to the country’s “military security services and secret services.”
Later, however, Mattis gave no indication whether Trump’s administration was considering an increase in its limited support for a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed rebels in Yemen. He said his Riyadh talks “could actually open the door possibly to bringing our president to Saudi Arabia.”
The retired four-star Marine general earlier met King Salman at Al-Yamama Palace in Riyadh, where he told the monarch: “It’s good to be back.”
Mattis commanded troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He arrived in the kingdom on Tuesday afternoon to listen to Saudi leaders and learn “what are their priorities,” an American defense official said.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have a decades-old relationship based on the exchange of American security for Saudi oil. But ties between Riyadh and Washington became increasingly frayed during the administration of president Barack Obama.
Saudi leaders felt Obama was reluctant to get involved in the civil war in Syria and was tilting toward Riyadh’s regional rival Iran. The Sunni Muslim kingdom “felt marginalized” during international negotiations on a nuclear accord with Shia Iran, the defense official said. That deal, signed in July 2015 by the Obama administration, saw the lifting of international sanctions in exchange for guarantees that Tehran would not pursue a nuclear weapons capability.
Saudi leaders worry about Iran interfering in Arab countries by using local Shia communities, as in Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen. Bordering Saudi Arabia, Yemen has been torn for more than two years by a civil war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels, their allies, and pro-government forces aided by a Saudi-led military coalition.
The Saudis have found a more favorable ear in Washington under Trump, who has denounced Iran’s “harmful influence” in the Middle East.
In February, Trump imposed new sanctions on Tehran after a ballistic missile test launch, and in response to its support for Yemen’s rebels. Prince Mohammed told Mattis that Saudi Arabia and the United States are working to counter challenges in the region, including “the malign activities of Iran” and to bring stability “to the most important straits.”
The U.S. military is watching Houthi activities along the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait connecting the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. Yemeni rebels in late January attacked a Saudi warship in the Red Sea, and they are also believed to have fired missiles toward U.S. warships in the area.
The United States accuses the rebels of deploying coastal defense missiles and other weapons which threaten free navigation in the waters which are vital to global trade. Trump’s Yemen focus has so far been on a major escalation of attacks against jihadists from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
But after talks with Prince Mohammed, Mattis warned of Iranian efforts to create a Yemeni militia “in the image” of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Washington provides intelligence as well as aerial refueling to coalition warplanes conducting airstrikes against the rebels in Yemen with American-supplied weapons. Pentagon officials are convinced that further military pressure will force the rebels back to peace talks, a strategy which other analysts are skeptical of.
“Our goal is to push this conflict into the U.N. brokered negotiations to ensure that it ends as soon as possible,” Mattis told reporters traveling on his first Middle East tour since taking office.
After Saudi Arabia, Mattis travels Thursday to Egypt and then to Israel before returning to the Gulf for talks in Qatar.