x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hagel in Riyadh to discuss $10bn weapons deal and crisis in Syria

US secretary of defence arrives in Saudi Arabia on a five-nation tour devoted largely to discussions about the civil war in Syria and a US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) arms deal to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

The US secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, arrived in Saudi Arabia yesterday on a five-nation tour devoted largely to discussions about the civil war in Syria and a US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) arms deal to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel.

Mr Hagel flew into Riyadh from Amman, where he held brief meetings with Jordan's army chief, Gen Masbal Al Zaben. Earlier in the day, he held talks with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem.

The new secretary's travels come at a time when regional tensions are running high over the crisis in Syria and Iran's nuclear programme.

"This is a difficult and dangerous time," Mr Hagel said in a joint news conference with Mr Netanyahu.

Discussions in Jordan focused on the war in Syria, which has sent more than 500,000 Syrians streaming into Jordan. Mr Hagel revealed last week that 150 US military specialists had been deployed to Jordan since last year and announced that Washington planned to increase that number to 200.

An unnamed senior US defence official said one aim of the stop in Jordan was for Mr Hagel to "hear directly from the Jordanian military officials about their needs" and discuss what the US "may be able to do to help them more".

In Riyadh, talks are expected to focus on the details of the $10bn weapons deal, which is intended to bolster the military capabilities of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel against Iran.

The deal, announced last week, would pave the way for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to acquire missiles that can be fired with greater precision from a greater distance than their current systems allow. The UAE is also expected to purchase 25 F-16 Desert Falcon fighter jets at a cost of just under $5bn.

In 2011, Saudi Arabia ordered 84 F-15SA fighter jets at an estimated cost of $29.4bn. US defence officials announced last week that the first shipment of aircraft had come off the assembly line and were undergoing flight tests in the US.

Mr Hagel's visit to Riyadh was also expected to touch on the crisis in Syria, where the US has pushed for broader coordination between the countries supporting opponents of Bashar Al Assad.

Last weekend John Kerry, the US secretary of state, promised to double non-lethal aid to the opposition Syrian National Council, after telling the US Senate on April 18 that he hoped to get Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Turkey on the "same page" regarding a policy on Syria's post-Assad future.

From Riyadh, Mr Hagel travels to Cairo next before concluding his trip in Abu Dhabi.

edickinson@thenational.ae

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