Defense Secretary Gates, Saudi king to discuss Mideast unrest

By Missy Ryan

RIYADH (Reuters) – Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and a major buyer of U.S. arms, on Wednesday to reaffirm U.S. support for a country that is a regional anchor of U.S. security policy.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates would discuss unrest sweeping the region with the elderly King Abdullah during his brief visit to the Gulf kingdom, the latest in a series of visits to Middle Eastern nations in recent weeks.

Saudi Arabia, which sits on more than a fifth of world oil reserves, has not seen the same degree of popular protests that have toppled Arab leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and have others battling for their political lives.

But the kingdom is dealing with internal pressures of its own as Saudi Shi’ites complain of discrimination and authorities scramble to find jobs for millions of young people.

Last month, hundreds of Shi’ites protested peacefully in the kingdom’s oil-producing east in support of Shi’ites in Bahrain and political freedoms.

King Abdullah announced $93 billion in social handouts in March, the second benefits package to be unveiled within a month, as part of the government’s efforts to stave off the kind of unrest that has gripped neighboring Bahrain, Yemen and Oman, and to strengthen the pillars of Saudi family rule.

With critics accusing President Barack Obama of failing to chart a clear course for dealing with uprisings across the Arab world, especially in Libya, a senior defense official told reporters traveling with Gates the Saudi visit would reflect the administration’s “pragmatic” approach to the unrest in the region — supporting reform but not pushing precipitous change.

“We’ve been consistent about the set of principles that we stand for. We also have real strategic partnerships in this part of the world,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

“We are going to continue to make sure that our partners understand we’re not abandoning them – while we continue to have a frank conversation with them about these reforms.”

In Saudi Arabia, the official said, discussions would center on political change across the region rather than Saudi Arabia’s own internal situation.

King Abdullah has started some cautious reforms but encountered resistance from Saudi’s powerful religious elite.

“It’s important for us to work closely and to share views with our partners in the region, so we’re looking for the king’s perspective,” the defense official said.

Saudi Arabia’s decision last month to send troops to nearby Bahrain in a bid to help contain Shi’ite unrest there came as a surprise to U.S. officials just after Gates had left the tiny island kingdom during another Middle East visit.

IRANIAN ROLE

Shi’ite Iran is also certain to be a focus of the talks.

“Clearly whenever (Gates) visits the Saudis and anyone else in the region, Iran will be a major focus of the conversation, both in terms of the regional threat they pose in pursuit of their nuclear program, their ballistic missile program — also lately in the role they’ve been playing to try to exploit the unrest in the region to their advantage,” Morell told reporters.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused his arch foe the United States and other western nations on Monday of fomenting unrest in his ally Syria and across the Arab Middle East to secure Israel’s position.

Iran, which has crushed its own opposition protests at home, has welcomed uprisings in the region as an “Islamic awakening” against despotic rulers.

U.S. officials say Iran has not had an active role in triggering the recent Arab uprisings but warn it could try to increase its influence across the region at a delicate moment.

“The longer this crisis drags out, the more opportunities there will be for Iran to meddle in a way that is not in our interest and not in Saudi Arabia’s interest,” the defense official said.

(Editing by Nick Macfie and Elizabeth Fullerton)

Defense Secretary Gates, Saudi king to discuss Mideast unrest