Gates arrives in Saudi Arabia for delayed meeting with king
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Wednesday and discussed the region’s pro-democracy uprisings and Iran’s attempts to exploit the turmoil.
“It was an extremely cordial, warm meeting. I think the relationship is in good place. We talked about developments all over the region,” he said, including Iran and the potential for itsdisruptive influence, as well as the bilateral military relationship, but did not provide further detail. “All in all, I felt very good about it.”
One item causing great tension in the region, but not specified in the agenda: Libya.
In his third visit to the Middle East in the last three weeks, Gates continued to push the Obama administration’s pragmatic approach to the region: Show strong support for friendly regimes deemed vital to U.S. strategic interests — and encourage them to be responsive to democracy protesters because it is good for stability — but do little publicly to help the protesters.
It was Gates’ first face-to-face meeting with Saudi officials since their military unexpectedly entered Bahrain on March 14, beginning a crackdown by security forces that led to deaths, beatings and intimidation campaigns against protesters in that country, which is considered a Saudi protectorate.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell rejected recent characterizations since then that the Obama administraiton and Saudi government were at a low point over how to handle the Middle East uprisings, saying no “rift” was on display between Gates and Abdullah.
A day before the crackdown, Gates was in the Bahraini capital of Manama, visiting the king and crown prince. He emerged from the meeting heralding Bahrain as a model outcome for the region, praising its royal family and government for allowing nonviolent protests to continue while promising to negotiate reforms with opposition leaders.
“We didn’t know the [Gulf Cooperation Council] troops were going to enter Bahrain when we were in Bahrain,” a senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters aboard Gates’ plane. Bahrain is home to several U.S. Central Command elements and the U.S. 5th Fleet, which overseas waters from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean.
Gates, at the time, warned that Iran already was trying to influence Bahrain’s unrest by urging hardliners not to participate in anticipated reform negotiations between government and protesters. On Sunday, ministers of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Riyadh issued a statement criticizing Iran for interfering in domestic politics of Kuwait and Bahrain, according to Bloomberg wire service.
Gates had planned to meet King Abdullah in Riyadh after the Bahrain stop, but the visit had been canceled earlier that week. Gates’ party was told the king was recovering from a long illness and not receiving visitors.
Meanwhile, the Saudi government largely has kept protesters off its own streets by publicly threatening to use internal security forces to crack down on any gathering attempts.
Despite those events, Pentagon officials said their approach to dealing with Middle Eastern regimes — including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — has not changed.
“The message won’t be any different than it was before,” the official said, citing the Obama administration’s “dual track” approach of urging regional leaders to recognize basic human rights such as free speech and recommending they get out ahead of protesters by implementing reforms before demonstrations grow.
“We also have real strategic partnerships in this part of the world that have no-kidding strategic vital interests for us,” the senior defense official said. “So as we stand up for our principles while still trying to protect our interests, we’re going to have to take a pragmatic approach.”
Gates also was expected on this visit to assure King Abdullah that the U.S. is making progress on the $60 billion arms sale announced last year that includes F-15s and helicopters, help with modernizing the Saudi navy, and upgrading and purchasing new ballistic missile defense systems, which are part of a larger regional umbrella the Pentagon is building to shield from the growing Iranian missile threat.
“All of these areas where we cooperate, none of that’s changed,” the official said. “All of these reasons for our strategic partnership are the same today as they were six months ago or a year ago, or two years ago.”
As such, there is no U.S. plan to tie that military aid to conditions of democracy reforms, he said.
“It’s easy to frame the situation as a zero-sum relationship between our principles and our interests,” said a senior defense official, but who insisted there is no “tension” between those two positions.