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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Tillerson lands in Riyadh at start of Gulf, South Asia tour

The US secretary of state's talks in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar were expected to be dominated by the topic of Iran's growing regional influence

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson is greeted as he arrives at the King Salman Air Base in Riyadh on October 21, 2017. Alex Brandon / AP
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson is greeted as he arrives at the King Salman Air Base in Riyadh on October 21, 2017. Alex Brandon / AP

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson arrived in Riyadh on Saturday to attend a landmark meeting between officials from Saudi Arabia and Iraq aimed at improving relations between the two countries and countering Iran’s growing regional influence.

The chief American diplomat flew into King Salman Air Base a little more than a week after US president Donald Trump unveiled a strategy to contain Iran and compel Tehran to agree to close what he charged are flaws in the multinational 2015 deal designed to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons.

Mr Tillerson’s only official meeting on Saturday was a working dinner with Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir. He was stopping in Saudi Arabia on the first leg of a six-day trip that will also take him to Qatar, Pakistan, India and Switzerland.

His talks in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar were expected to be dominated by the topic of Iran's growing regional influence.

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Iran-backed militias have helped turn the tide of the Syrian war in the government’s favour and have also played leading roles in Iraq’s battle to recapture territory from ISIL.

This week, they aided Iraqi security forces in seizing the northern city of Kirkuk and surrounding areas from Kurdish forces as part of an effort to crush a bid for independence made by the Kurds.

Iran is also supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen against pro-government forces supported by a Saudi-led military coalition that is backed by the US. Yemen’s grinding war was expected to be high on Mr Tillerson’s agenda.

On Sunday, the US secretary of state is due to attend the inaugural session of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council, a body whose creation was promoted by the Trump administration to bolster relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, whose Shiite-dominated government has close ties with Tehran.

During his visit, Mr Tillerson is also expected to explore the possibility of renewing a push to end a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, although he has conceded he is not optimistic.

The quartet has accused Qatar of supporting terror groups and cosying up to Iran at the region's expense. Doha denies the allegations.

Mr Tillerson forged close ties with Gulf Arab countries in his former position as CEO of Exxon Mobil.