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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

US Secretary of State to tour Saudi Arabia and Qatar 

In his first trip to the Middle East since July, which includes a stop in Doha, Mr Tillerson will meet leaders from both sides of the Qatar dispute and discuss counter-terrorism efforts.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will arrive in Saudi Arabia on Friday for a visit that will highlight improved relations between Riyadh and Baghdad and elements of Donald Trump’s strategy to contain Iran.

In his first trip to the Middle East since July, which includes a stop in Doha, Mr Tillerson will meet leaders from both sides of the Qatar dispute and discuss counter-terrorism efforts.

The week-long tour will also include Islamabad, New Delhi and Geneva, the State Department said.

In Riyadh, Mr Tillerson will take part in the inaugural Coordination Council meeting between the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The meeting comes amid a thaw in relations between the two countries. Saudi King Salman called Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi on Tuesday, and more agreements on the commercial, oil and gas sectors have taken place since the Iraqi prime minister visited Saudi Arabia in June.

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Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security said Mr Tillerson’s participation in the Iraqi-Saudi meeting is in line with the administration’s policy to improve ties between Baghdad and its Arab neighbours.

“The Trump team vision for Iraq is to empower prime minister Abadi to be able to balance more strongly pro-Iranian elements in the Iraqi government,” Mr Heras said. An important way to support that “is to provide Baghdad with a larger set of options in building international partnerships, especially Arab states,” he said.

“The Trump team goal is to bring Iraq more firmly into the ‘Arab camp’, and to normalise Iraq as a Gulf Arab state, which balances the Mesopotamian Iraq which is historically tied to Iran.”

Successive US administrations have attempted since 2003 to improve ties between Iraq and the Arab world, and current efforts are seeing success with the reopening of the Iraqi-Jordanian border and boosting trade as well as reconstruction talks between Baghdad and the Gulf states.

In Saudi, Mr Tillerson is also expected to discuss the Trump administration’s new counter Iran strategy, with emphasis on the Yemen conflict and military cooperation. This month the State Department approved a $15 billion (Dh55bn) sale of the Thaad missile system to Riyadh.

Mr Tillerson will travel to Doha from Riyadh where he will meet with military personnel to discuss joint counterterrorism efforts, the Gulf dispute, and other regional and bilateral issues, including Iran and Iraq.

“There may be some leeway to make progress on the Qatar dispute,” European diplomatic sources told The National. But a breakthrough in the row, which erupted when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Egypt and Bahrain broke diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Doha, “remains unexpected,” the diplomat said

Mr Trump has stressed the importance of GCC unity in countering Iran, combatting extremism and fighting terrorism.

Mr Tillerson’s trip was announced hours after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps pledged to enhance the nation’s missile despite Mr Trump’s tough new stance against the country, which includes new sanctions on the security force.

The missile programme will be expanded “at greater speed,” the IRGC said on Thursday.

The statement said in a statement reported by the Tasnim news agency comes after Mr Trump called Iran a “rogue” state in a speech on Friday that formalised his administration’s more aggressive approach.

He refused to certify Iran’s compliance with the landmark 2015 nuclear accord, even as all other parties to the deal maintain it is abiding by the terms.