by Glen Carey and Justin Sink
U.S. President Donald Trump, facing growing criticism over his move to block immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, held talks with two prominent Arab leaders on Sunday to bolster ties and discuss anti-terrorism efforts in the Middle East.
Trump spoke by phone with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed. The call with the Saudi monarch lasted more than an hour, according to a senior Saudi person who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss its details. In addition to combating terrorism and boosting economic ties, the two leaders agreed to tackle Iran’s “destabilizing regional activities” in the region, the White House said.
The remarks help shed more light on Trump’s Middle East policy by signaling he would improve ties with the Gulf Arab monarchies that felt shunned by the U.S. under the Obama administration, which focused on clinching a nuclear deal with Iran. The new U.S. president, however, stopped short of vowing to repeal the accord, saying he agreed with the Saudi king on “the importance of rigorously enforcing” it, according to the White House.
Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose capital is Abu Dhabi, are engaged in proxy confrontations with Shiite-ruled Iran in some of the Middle East’s bloodiest conflicts. The Islamic Republic was one of the seven countries included in the 90-day immigration ban on Friday, the others being Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya.
Trump asked the two leaders to help secure safe zones in conflict areas in the region to support the displaced. King Salman also agreed to back “other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts,” the White House said.
The two leaders “agreed on the importance of strengthening joint efforts to fight the spread of radical Islamic terrorism and also on the importance of working jointly to address challenges to regional peace and security, including the conflicts in Syria and Yemen,” the White House said.
Saudi Arabia is one of the U.S.’s oldest allies in the Middle East. Relations suffered briefly after 15 Saudi nationals took part in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. Saudis and other Gulf Arabs also criticized former President Barack Obama for not offering enough support in the showdown with Iran.
Saudi officials, however, have welcomed Trump’s election and praised his choice of Rex Tillerson, the former chairman of Exxon Mobil Corp., as secretary of State. The kingdom is considering New York as a possible venue of the share sale of its oil giant Aramco, in what could be the world’s biggest initial public offering.
Trump’s call with the king also tackled how the late al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, aimed to destroy the kingdom’s ties with the U.S. by recruiting Saudis to launch the 9-11 attacks, according to the senior Saudi person. Bin Laden also wanted to use the attacks to expand and recruit for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, the person said.
Saudi Arabia will boost its participation in the international coalition against Islamic State and other terrorist groups, the Saudi person said.
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Trump has ordered a review of U.S. strategy to combat Islamic State fighters operating in Iraq and Syria. In a memo Saturday, Trump ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a plan within 30 days to eliminate the terror group. It’s unclear how or whether the strategy would deviate from the Obama administration’s efforts, which has involved deploying U.S. special forces, supplying and equipping local armies, and a coalition air campaign.
Also over the weekend, a U.S. serviceman was killed in a raid against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, the first such loss since Trump took office.