ABU DHABI // Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and US president Donald Trump have pledged to support safe zones for civilians in Syria and Yemen, and enforce the nuclear deal with Iran.
During a phone conversation on Sunday, the leaders also spoke of the need to address Tehran’s “destabilising regional activities” and to fight terrorism.
In a separate phone call with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Mr Trump discussed “groups that raise fake slogans and ideologies [that] aim to hide their criminal truth by spreading chaos and destruction” – a possible reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The new US administration is considering whether to designate the Islamist group as a terrorist organisation, as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have done, according to a source close to Mr Trump’s national security team.
In both phone conversations, Mr Trump raised the idea of supporting safe zones for refugees displaced by conflict in the region, according to the White House.
During his discussion with King Salman, “the president requested, and the king agreed, to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts”, the White House said.
During his presidential campaign Mr Trump said Gulf countries should pay for the creation and maintenance of safe zones in Syria, but no details were provided.
The creation of safe zones for civilians in Yemen had not previously been broached by the new US president or the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting on behalf of the internationally-recognised Yemeni government against a rebel alliance supported by Iran.
There is little support for the deployment of troops, air assets or other resources and their associated costs in the US congress, and Mr Trump himself ran on a platform of ending US military involvement overseas and working more closely with Russia to fight ISIL in the region.
The Saudi Press Agency, however, made no mention of the idea of safe zones in Yemen, saying only that the king “had confirmed his support and backing for setting up safe zones in Syria”.
The two phone calls did not apparently touch on the ban Mr Trump imposed on refugees and travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries which has been widely criticised by world leaders, and triggered outrage and confusion across the US and beyond.
Another issue not covered in the call with King Salman was the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or Jasta, for which an amendment was a key priority for Saudi lobbying efforts in the last session of congress. The US legislature overrode a veto by then president Barack Obama to enshrine the bill into law, enabling Americans to sue the Saudi government over the claim that officials from the kingdom were involved in the 9/11 plot. Saudi assets can potentially be frozen during the course of the court cases.
King Salman also discussed Saudi Vision 2030 with Mr Trump as Riyadh seeks US private investment in its economic reform plan.
“Both leaders expressed a desire to explore additional steps to strengthen bilateral economic and energy cooperation,” according to the White House.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and the US became increasingly frayed during the eight-year term of Barack Obama, particularly over what Saudi leaders perceived as his reluctance to get involved in the Syrian war, and what they saw as a policy of detente with Iran.
Riyadh’s foreign minister, Adel Al Jubeir, has said he expects the Trump administration to be more engaged in the Middle East.
During Sunday’s phone call, King Salman invited Mr Trump “to lead a Middle East effort to defeat terrorism and to help build a new future, economically and socially”, the White House said.
Mr Trump also discussed the importance of strengthening cooperation with the Gulf against ISIL.
As for Iran, Mr Trump had called for the renegotiation of the nuclear accord signed by Tehran and world powers including Washington, but the White House said the president and Saudi king agreed to “rigorously” enforce the current deal.
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse and Reuters