Gates, Saudi King Discuss Defense Relationship

The bilateral military relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, progress in a major arms sale and concerns about Iran are among the topics Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Saudi King Abdullah are discussing in a meeting here today, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said.

Gates arrived here late this morning for the latest in a series of visits that have taken him to six other countries in the region since mid-March.

“The secretary has developed and enjoys an excellent relationship with King Abdullah,” Morrell said, “to the point where he has been invited to, essentially, drop in on the king whenever he’s in the region. He has been trying to take advantage of that kind invitation over the last couple of years.”

Saudi Arabia is the No. 1 consumer of American military hardware, Morrell noted, and part of Gates’ discussion with the king about the U.S.-Saudi military-to-military relationship will center on progress in finalizing a recent $60 billion arms sale agreement.

Gates and the Saudi monarch also will share their perspectives on the recent political developments in the region, Morrell told reporters traveling with the secretary, a discussion that inevitably will include Iran.

“Clearly, whenever [the secretary] visits the Saudis or anyone else in the region,” he said, “Iran will be a major focus of their conversation –- both in terms of the regional threat they pose in pursuit of their nuclear program [and] their ballistic missile program, but also in terms lately of the role they’ve been playing in trying to exploit the unrest in the region to their advantage.”

A senior Defense Department official said Gates planned to encourage King Abdullah to continue moving forward in working with the United States on ballistic missile defense cooperation and naval modernization as they discuss the military relationship between their countries.

Gates’ impressions from his recent visits to the region in the midst of widespread unrest also will be among the topics the secretary discusses with the king, the official said.

“He’ll be sharing his perspectives on how we see the region,” the official said. “I think he will reaffirm the administration’s dual-track approach to the unrest. At the most general level, we’ve been consistent on the articulation of basic principles: the right of free speech, the right of assembly, the right of association, the absolute obligation by all parties -- security forces and protesters alike -- to refrain from violence, protest peacefully [and] respond to the protests peacefully.

“It’s also our judgment that given this political earthquake rocking the region,” he continued, “it’s ultimately in the interest of all of the leaders in this part of the world to get out ahead of it –- to implement genuine reforms.”

That view applies in general terms for the region, the official added, but on a specific level, the path toward reform and the tempo of changes will vary.

“It depends on what makes sense in any particular country -– what’s possible, what’s realistic, what the opposition is demanding, what’s within the realm of the conceivable,” he explained. “In a lot of these cases, it’s really an evolutionary approach, as opposed to a revolutionary approach to reform, that might be appropriate.”

The official said Gates will note that neither the United States nor Iran started the turmoil that has rocked the Middle East, but the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation.

“And our eyes are wide open about that,” the official added.

In this visit and during others the defense secretary has made in the region, the official said, Gates has stressed the value of strategic partnerships in meeting common challenges such as extremism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the ballistic missile threat and maritime security. Those common challenges predate the current turmoil in the region, he noted, and they remain as challenges going forward.

“None of that has changed,” the official said. “All of those reasons for our strategic partnership are the same today as they were six months ago, or a year ago, or two years ago. What has changed is the regional context, and one of our shared interests is in stability –- stability of our key partners and stability in the region.”

[Source: By John D. Banusiewicz, American Forces Press Service, US Department of Defense, Ryadh, 06Apr11]

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