RIYADH, Saudi Arabia —The Obama administration is moving to strengthen its ties with Persian Gulf nations whose geography and oil resources have already made them key players in U.S. defense and energy security.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday will inaugurate a strategic dialogue with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council that the administration expects will ultimately lead to a coordinated, U.S-supplied regional missile defense system and increased stability in international oil markets.
Clinton arrived here Friday for initial meetings with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s most powerful member and closest U.S. partner. The other members are Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.
Proposed by the administration last fall as a regular gathering, the first U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum comes as the organization has become an increasingly powerful player in the turmoil that has shaken the Arab world over the past year.
The GCC was in the forefront of calls for international intervention in Libya. And last year, Gulf states sent troops to Bahrain to quell an upheaval in that Persian Gulf island nation. Additionally, they proposed a transition of power that ultimately led to a change of government in Yemen.
To the consternation of some of their partners in the broader Arab League, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have advocated supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition. Clinton and the Gulf foreign ministers will hold a side meeting here before the formal opening of the forum to try to achieve a common position on Syria before they attend a Sunday meeting in Istanbul on the Syrian crisis.
But the administration has indicated that it will not support a Saudi-led call to establish a protected “safe zone” along the Syria-Turkey border to unify, train and arm the Syrian opposition. Instead, Clinton has called for more diplomatic and economic pressure on the Syrian regime, and for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to act on a U.N-Arab League sponsored plan to stop the violence and move toward a political transition.
Underlying the aggressive posture of the Gulf Arabs, particularly Saudi Arabia, is a desire to quell and resolve Arab upheavals before they cross into the autocratic Gulf monarchies, and competition with Iran for regional power.
A desire for more robust U.S. action toward Iran’s nuclear program is one of the few issues on which the Gulf states and Israel have found common ground. At the very least, the GCC governments want more information on the administration’s strategy as it moves toward another round of diplomatic talks with Tehran.
The Gulf states, like Israel, are within Iranian missile range, and their oil exports pass within miles of Iranian territory through the narrow Strait of Hormuz.
Both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have U.S. Patriot missile defense systems in place — systems that are being upgraded to the latest generation with recent purchases. Kuwait also has purchased Patriot missiles, and late last year the administration finalized the sale of a Terminal High Altitude Defense System to the Emirates.
“We’re working with each of them to develop the architecture” for a regional system, a senior State Department official said. The administration’s goal, he said, is to put existing U.S. tactical defense cooperation with individual Gulf nations into “a strategic context,” the official said.
Diplomats from the region said they paid close attention to President Obama’s promise to “have Israel’s back” in the event of Iranian aggression and are looking for similar assurances.
The State Department official said that the GCC talks would include enhanced strategic cooperation on other issues, including counterterrorism and maritime security and the threats posed by upheavals in Syria, Yemen and Somalia.
A second State Department official said that in bilateral talks with the Saudis, Clinton on Friday briefed Abdullah and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal on “unfolding plans” for a resumption of long-suspending talks between Iran and the P5+1 group — the United States and the four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany.
As world oil supplies have tightened with sanctions against both Iran and Syria, and with Iraq and Libya production still struggling, the Saudis have quietly spread the world that they will use their spare capacity and full storage facilities.