x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Kerry dismisses talk of US rift with Saudi Arabia

US secretary of state meets King Abdullah in the Saudi capital and underscores the importance of Washington's relationship with Riyadh after Saudi policymakers expressed frustration with US policy in the region. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

John Kerry meets with King Abdullah in Riyadh. Mr Kerry hailed the kingdom’s role as the ‘senior player’ in the Middle East’s foreign policy. Jason Reed / AP
John Kerry meets with King Abdullah in Riyadh. Mr Kerry hailed the kingdom’s role as the ‘senior player’ in the Middle East’s foreign policy. Jason Reed / AP

ABU DHABI // John Kerry played down suggestions of a rift between the United States and Saudi Arabia and vowed they would work together on regional issues from Syria to the Palestinian territories.

The US’s top diplomat met King Abdullah in the Saudi capital yesterday and underscored the importance of Washington’s relationship with Riyadh after Saudi policymakers last month expressed frustration with US policy in the region.

“There is no difference in our mutually agreed upon goal in Syria,” the US secretary of state told reporters in Riyadh.

The US “will not stand idly by” as Syria’s president Bashar Al Assad turns weapons on his own people, Mr Kerry said.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said the kingdom’s recent policy differences with the US were a normal part of relations between countries.

“US-Saudi relations have always been based on independence and respect and based on serving mutual interests,” Prince Saud said.

“It is not strange to see concurrence and differences between any two serious friends who explore all issues, present their views and seek solutions through continuous dialogue at all levels with the aim to reach a common vision that would be reflected positively to solve or at least make breakthroughs of thorny issues.”

Earlier in his visit, Mr Kerry praised Saudi Arabia as a “very, very important ally”, essential to regional issues including Egypt, Syria, and Middle East peace.

Saudi Arabia last month declined a seat on the United Nations Security Council Seat, citing “double standards” on the body and its inability to solve the crises in Syria, the Palestinian territories and regional arms proliferation.

The council’s failure to address the conflict in Syria, peace between Israel and Palestine, and regional arms proliferation has “put the region under the threat of a time bomb that cannot be defused by only dealing with its ramification or manoeuvring around it”, Prince Saud said yesterday.

Saudi Arabia has been particularly frustrated with the Security Council’s focus on Syria’s chemical weapons, which it argues is just one aspect of the conflict.

“Squeezing the Syrian crisis to a mere disarmament of chemical weapons has failed to put an end to one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time,” Prince Saud said.

The Saudi Cabinet yesterday once again urged the council to shoulder “its responsibilities towards dealing with the Syrian crisis and its serious repercussions and not to limit the dealing with the crisis to the issue of removing the chemical weapons”.

The US had threatened a military strike on the Assad regime after claiming that his forces had used chemical weapons in Damascus, killing hundreds of people.

But a US-Russia deal in which Mr Al Assad promised to give up his stockpile of chemical weapons averted a US strike.

Saudi Arabia is “the senior player” in regional foreign policy, Mr Kerry told staff at the US Embassy, explaining that the kingdom had “the ability to be able to influence a lot of the things that we also care about”.

“The Saudis are really the sort of senior player, if you will, in the Arab world, together with Egypt. Egypt is in more of a transition, so Saudi Arabia’s role is that much more important.

“Right now, we have some very important things to talk about to make certain that the Saudi Arabian-US relationship is on track, moving forward and doing the things that we need to accomplish,” Mr Kerry told the embassy staff before his meetings with Prince Saud and King Abdullah.

After meeting Mr Kerry, Prince Saud said the Syrian crisis required a “decisive solution”. He said Saudi Arabia understood the importance of convening peace talks in Geneva, but insisted such discussions could not go on indefinitely.

The Saudi foreign minister added that his country was talking to the Syrian opposition about attending the talks, which they have so far declined to do. But the final decision was the opposition’s alone, his ministry’s Twitter account quoted him saying.

In addition to discussing the Syrian crisis, Mr Kerry’s discussions touched on ways to move forward a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr Kerry also said he had reassured the kingdom that the US was committed to its security and that Washington would not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, saying this guarantee was “a promise by the president of the United States”.

Mr Kerry is in Saudi Arabia on the second leg of a 10-day tour through the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. From Riyadh, he will travel to Poland, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, the UAE, Algeria and Morocco.

edickinson@thenational.ae

* With reporting from Reuters and Associated Press