RIYADH (AFP) – US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday reassured nervous Saudis over a possible warming of US relations with Riyadh’s regional rival Tehran, stressing Washington’s strong ties with the kingdom.
“The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been one of the mainstays of stability in the Middle East for more than 60 years,” he said at the Eskan Village military base outside the Saudi capital.
“Saudi Arabia continues to be an important partner for the US in counter-terrorism and a range of other issues.”
Gates said Washington was also looking at ways of speeding up the delivery of arms to Saudi Arabia and other US allies.
He was speaking to US military personnel and civilian advisers to Saudi security forces on the final day of a two-day trip to the country, the world’s leading oil exporter and a key American regional ally.
On Tuesday he met top officials on the second stop of a regional trip partly aimed at assuaging worries that Washington was preparing a “grand bargain” with Tehran that would move it away from Arab powers Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
After meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Tuesday, Gates said Washington would proceed carefully and that no Iran deal was imminent.
There were “some exaggerated concerns, some notion here in the region that there might be some grand bargain between the United States and Iran that would suddenly be sprung on them,” he told reporters in Egypt.
Such concerns were “completely unrealistic,” Gates said, pledging that Washington would consult closely with its allies and that no deal would be hatched in secret.
“We will keep our friends informed about what is going so that nobody gets surprised,” he said.
Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have quietly expressed serious concerns about US engagement with Iran, which they see as the most serious regional threat to stability.
“Uppermost in our minds is taking measures necessary with our partners in the region, to maintain their security and their stability in particular against Iranian subversive activities,” Gates said on Tuesday.
US military officials at Eskan emphasized the role of some 800 US military and civilian personnel in helping train and equip Saudi security units, among them a new 35,000-strong interior ministry force to guard vital infrastructure such as oil and gas production facilities.
“Although you do not work in a direct combat role, your mission remains essential to America’s security,” Gates told them.
He said Saudi officials had made no new requests to buy US weapons, but said he was looking at removing “bureaucratic obstacles” to speed up the delivery of arms to Riyadh and other US allies.
Gates meanwhile said he had discussed the possibility of Saudi Arabia taking responsibility for some of the nearly 100 Yemeni detainees still at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He said he and Saudi Assistant Interior Minister for Security Prince Mohammed bin Nayef discussed placing the Yemenis into a successful Saudi terrorist rehabilitation programme.
“I did raise with (Nayef) our positive impressions of the rehabilitation-repatriation programme in Saudi Arabia,” Gates told reporters.
He said no specific request was made by the United States, which is reluctant to release the Yemenis back to their own country for fear they would quickly rejoin militant groups.
“It was more a general conversation about the capability and the possibility,” Gates said before leaving Riyadh.
He praised the Saudi programme, which claims a 90 percent success rate, with only about a dozen of the former Guantanamo prisoners reverting to militant or criminal activities.