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US defence secretary holds talks with Saudi king

by Staff Writers
Riyadh (AFP) April 6, 2011
US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates held talks in Riyadh on Wednesday with Saudi King Abdullah, with both sides concerned by Iranian intentions in the region and spiralling unrest in Yemen.

"We talked about developments all over the region, obviously talked about Iran," Gates said following the meeting.

"We talked about how to prevent disruptive actions and extremist organisations trying to take advantages of the turbulences in the region," he added.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states have traded accusations with Iran of meddling and interference, especially over the tiny Sunni-ruled, Shiite-majority kingdom of Bahrain that lies to Saudi Arabia's east, and is a key US ally and home to the US Fifth Fleet.

"We already have evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain and we also have evidence that they're talking about what they can do to create problems elsewhere," Gates said.

Saudi Arabia led a joint Gulf force that deployed there last month, enabling Bahraini authorities to quell Shiite-led protests calling for democratic reforms.

On Sunday, foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Saudi Arabia is a leading member, accused Iran of interference in the affairs of Bahrain and Kuwait in a campaign to destabilise the region.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded by saying that the United States and its allies pressured the Gulf Arab states to make the accusations against Iran, and demanded Saudi forces leave Bahrain.

The meeting was Gates' first with King Abdullah since the monarch returned home in February after months of treatment abroad for a back ailment, and came amid mounting international anger over bloodshed in the kingdom's southern neighbour Yemen and pressure on its president to stand down.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a close US and Saudi ally, has faced months of protests calling for his departure, in which around 125 people have been killed.

Despite Saleh being a key US partner in its fight against Al-Qaeda, the White House on Tuesday issued an unusually personal warning to him about violence against Yemeni protesters.

"The Yemeni people have a right to demonstrate peacefully, and we remind President Ali Abdullah Saleh of his responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Yemenis who are exercising their universal right to engage in political expression," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

The GCC is seeking to mediate between the Yemeni government and the opposition in a bid to find a way out of the country's political impasse.

Saleh on Wednesday welcomed the mediation offer, according to a statement on Saba state news agency, which said he "affirmed the necessity of a serious and fruitful dialogue to overcome the current crisis".

An article on the defence department's website quoted Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell as saying that "discussion with the king about the US-Saudi military-to-military relationship will center on progress in finalising a recent $60 billion arms sale agreement."

The United States announced last year that it plans to offer Saudi Arabia $60 billion worth of hi-tech fighter jets and helicopters, in the largest US arms deal ever.

"We talked about the breadth of our bilateral relationship and about military to military relations", Gates said following the meeting.

"It was an extremely cordial, warm meeting, I think the relationship is in a good place," he said.

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