By Yeganeh Torbati
RIYADH, April 20 – U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his Gulf Arab counterparts met in Riyadh on Wednesday to discuss ways to counter Iran and fight Daesh, laying the ground for President Barack Obama’s arrival in Saudi Arabia later in the day.
Obama will meet Saudi King Salman on Wednesday before a summit with all the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), also in Riyadh, on Thursday, with shared security and defence issues likely to dominate the agenda.
Obama and Carter will seek to reassure the GCC, which groups Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, that Washington still shares their interests and will continue to ensure their security, U.S. officials have said.
In part, Carter aims to do so by helping them build up their cyber, special operations and maritime capabilities, which U.S. defence officials see as more effective in countering Iran than their historical big spending on air power.
The GCC’s mostly Sunni Muslim monarchies, with the exception of Oman, see Shi’ite Iran as a threat to their security and say its involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen has fuelled conflict and deepened sectarian divisions.
The White House shares their view that Tehran plays a destabilising role, but has said it hopes to bring Iran and Gulf Arab states to develop a “cold peace” in which their rivalry does not further inflame smouldering Middle East tensions.
However, last year’s nuclear deal between Iran and world powers including the United States was seen by Gulf Arabs as a sign that Washington was making overtures to Tehran, and they fear Obama also wants to reduce U.S. involvement in the region.
Strengthening the Gulf Arab states’ military and security capabilities has been part of Obama’s reassurance in recent years that he will support them. Washington has also given behind-the-scenes assistance for the Saudi-led coalition campaign in Yemen.
Talks on helping Gulf states build up their security capacity feed into that. Improving their maritime capabilities, for instance, would help them to interdict arms shipments that Riyadh believes are being smuggled into Yemen by Iran.
Carter also arrived in Riyadh hoping to win pledges from Gulf allies to help pay for the reconstruction of areas of Iraq damaged by the fight against Daesh, a hardline Sunni Islamist group that seized parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Iraq is struggling to fund an expensive fight against Daesh amid low oil prices, but even the wealthy Gulf countries have had to enact spending limits or consider doing so given their dependence on oil sales as a revenue source.
They also have concerns about aiding Iraq’s government, which they view as too prone to influence from its neighbour and fellow Shi’ite-majority country, Iran.