US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in the Saudi Arabia Tuesday, the first leg of a regional tour focusing on Iran’s nuclear programme and Syria’s civil war.
Hagel will hold talks with Saudi officials and on Wednesday he will meet Gulf Cooperation Council defence ministers in the first US-GCC meeting of its kind since 2008.
An AFP photographer said Hagel’s plane touched down in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, ahead of a planned tour that US officials said will also take him to Jordan and Israel.
“This trip will be the secretary’s third to the Middle East in just over a year, and it will advance America’s regional strategy in that region,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said last week.
US officials have struggled to reassure Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, over an interim nuclear deal with Iran that the Saudis worry will embolden Tehran.
The energy-rich GCC has also been dissatisfied with Washington’s cautious approach to arming rebel forces in Syria.
Kirby last week said the US-GCC meeting will namely offer Hagel a chance “to underscore US security commitments in the Middle East and to reinforce the United States’ unstinting policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and further destabilising the region.”
The gathering will also focus on coordinating “air and missile defence, maritime security and cyber defence,” he said.
After his stop in Saudi Arabia, Hagel will head to Jordan for talks on the raging civil war in its neighbour Syria.
“This visit will highlight the US commitment to the defence of Jordan, where more than 1,000 US personnel are on the ground working closely with Jordanian defence authorities,” Kirby said.
Hagel will wrap up his regional tour in Israel for talks with top officials and to discuss efforts to bolster Israel’s rocket and missile defences, Kirby said.
The tour is part of “our effort to work in a coordinated manner with allies and partners across the region to address common security challenges,” according to the press secretary.