x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Q&A: Senior Obama aides dicusses Saudi Arabia visit

Excerpts from an interview with Philip Gordon, special assistant to President Barack Obama and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region:

What are the goals of this visit?

The president wanted to go to Riyadh on this trip. We have a very long-standing and very important strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia for 70 years, and the president looks forward to covering all of the regional issues we work together on. The president looks forward to the opportunity to sit down directly with the king, whose wisdom he appreciates and whose experience and insight he values, to talk about this full range of issues in person.

There has been a perceived lack of personal relationships with regional leaders by Mr Obama. Is this trip also partly about addressing this?

Absolutely. The president knows fully well that there’s nothing like personal contact and we know it’s particularly important in the Gulf and that’s why he took the initiative to say: “I’m going to go and sit down directly with the king.’

The US has been asking the GCC to work more closely together on defence. How is the rift among GCC members affecting US strategy in the region and will the president address this in his talks in Riyadh?

I’m sure this will be a part of the discussion. It’s an important development that we’re following very closely. We want to see the countries of the GCC get along and I think the president will appreciate hearing the concerns of all of our partners in the region. Obviously this is for the GCC countries to sort out but if there’s any way we can be helpful, I’m sure we will want to be helpful.

In Syria there seems to have been more convergence in interests with Saudi Arabia on the issue of counterterrorism. Is this development changing the tone of discussions over Syria, and how will the president address the issue?

Cooperation between us has been good and improving because we have the same goals: supporting a moderate opposition, bringing about a political transition, and confronting the extremists who are regrettably increasingly a part of the picture.

You’re also right to note we haven’t been perfectly aligned when it comes to Syria. The president will welcome the chance to underscore that we agree that Assad’s leadership is illegitimate and the only way to truly have stability in Syria is to have a political transition.

Saudi and the UAE are invested in the Egyptian government and helping stabilise the economy, but at the same time the US has frozen some aid to Egypt. Will the president address this and try to find some common ground?

The president knows how important Egypt is to the king and crown prince and he will certainly discuss that topic. We think there’s some misunderstanding on our position on Egypt. Without saying we’re perfectly aligned, because there are legitimate differences, we are delivering aid to Egypt. After the events of last summer certain categories of large weapons systems were suspended to underscore the importance we felt of moving towards a democratic transition, but all of our counterterrorism assistance continues to flow, spare parts, economic assistance, because we want Egypt to succeed. Egypt is too important a country for all of us, not to succeed.

* Taimur Khan