Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel to meet GCC ministers in Saudi Arabia

The summit will take place during the US defence secretary's tour of the Middle East and will be the first US-GCC meeting of defence ministers since 2008, according to a Pentagon spokesman.

Chuck Hagel, left, meets Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa during his last trip to the region. Mr Hagel is expected to meet GCC defence ministers in Saudi Arabia next week. AP Photo / December 6, 2013
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WASHINGTON // The US defence secretary will meet GCC defence ministers next week, marking the first time defence ministers from the US and the council since 2008.

Chuck Hagel will fly to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel for talks that are expected to focus on Iran’s nuclear programme and Syria’s civil war, officials said yesterday.

“This trip will be the secretary’s third to the Middle East in just over a year, and it will advance America’s regional strategy,” the Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

The tour, which was expected to begin on Monday, was part of “our effort to work in a coordinated manner with allies and partners across the region to address common security challenges”, Mr Kirby said.

US officials have struggled to reassure Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, over an interim nuclear deal with Iran that the Saudis worry will embolden Tehran. The Gulf governments have also been dissatisfied with Washington’s cautious approach to arming rebel forces in Syria.

In Saudi Arabia, Mr Hagel was to meet Gulf Cooperation Council defence ministers, a session he proposed during his visit to the region in December.

The meeting will offer a chance for Mr Hagel “to underscore US security commitments in the Middle East and to reinforce the United States’ unstinting policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and further destabilising the region,” Adm Kirby said.

It will be the first US-GCC meeting of defence ministers since 2008, according to Adm Kirby.

The gathering of Gulf ministers will also focus on coordinating “air and missile defence, maritime security and cyber defence”.

From Saudi Arabia, Hagel will travel to Jordan, where he will meet his counterpart there to discuss the civil war in Syria.

“This visit will highlight the US commitment to the defence of Jordan, where more than 1,000 US personnel are on the ground working closely with Jordanian defence authorities,” Kirby said.

Saudi Arabia was expected to host an Arab League meeting on Syria on Monday, but Riyadh said yesterday the meeting would be postponed, the group’s deputy chief Ahmed Ben Helli said yesterday.

The meeting of foreign ministers was originally called for Monday by Riyadh to discuss “steps that need to be taken to deal with the Syrian tragedy”.

But the Saudis have now indefinitely postponed what was originally billed as an emergency gathering that they were going to host without saying why, and no new date has been set for it.

Western and Gulf nations opposed to the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al Assad are due to hold their latest meeting in London on Thursday to discuss boosting support for the rebels.

UN-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said in late March that a resumption of peace talks in Geneva between Damascus and the opposition was currently “out of the question”.

In a briefing to the UN Security Council, Mr Brahimi accused Damascus of delaying efforts to resume the negotiations, diplomats in New York said.

Mr Al Assad’s regime is preparing for a presidential election which excludes the exiled opposition taking part, paving the way for his re-election.

The opposition has denounced the controversial June 3 election as a “farce”.

Mr Hagel will wrap up his regional tour in Israel.

* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Associated Press