ABU DHABI // Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed met Donald Trump for talks in Washington on Monday, as the White House announced a defence cooperation agreement between the two countries.
Mr Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, said the agreement, which was concluded “recently”, would allow the UAE and United States “to work more closely together to address common security threats”.
“The [US] president hopes to work together even more closely to resolve regional conflicts that [have] raged across the region for too long,” he added. Sheikh Mohammed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, is “ a strong partner of the United States and a leader in the Middle East on a number of important topics including defence cooperation, regional security and counterterrorism”.
Sitting alongside one another in the Oval Office, Mr Trump called Sheikh Mohammed a “very special person” who loves his country and loves the US. The two leaders were set to discuss bilateral cooperation, including on counterterrorism and efforts to contain Iran’s regional ambitions, as well as bilateral trade and investment.
The talks came ahead of the US president’s trip to Riyadh this weekend, where Mr Trump will meet Saudi leaders, GCC officials and heads of state from many Muslim-majority countries allied with Riyadh.
Sheikh Mohammed, was to meet the US secretary of defence later on Monday, and the secretary of state and senior members of congress on Tuesday. But a key goal of his time in Washington will be to help Mr Trump prepare for his visit to Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his first trip overseas since taking office.
The UAE views Mr Trump’s support for the Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman and the economic reform plan that he is spearheading as crucial to its success, according to observers.
Mr Trump, increasingly embattled at home, is looking to make headway on some of the key foreign policy objectives of his administration, including a bid to broker peace between the Palestinians and Israel and working with Washington’s traditional partners in the Middle East to roll back Iran’s growing clout in the region.
His meeting with leaders from more 50 Middle Eastern, African and Asian Muslim countries in Riyadh is also intended to send a signal to audiences abroad and in the US that he has moved away from his campaign rhetoric about Muslims.
Mr Trump’s trip to Riyadh is aimed at “helping build bridges and understanding between the president and a group he had some challenges with”, said a Gulf source with knowledge of official preparations for the trip.
Sheikh Mohammed and Mr Trump were also expected to discuss the UAE’s counter-extremism efforts and policies promoting religious tolerance, including through joint initiatives that were established during former US president Barack Obama’s tenure such as the Sawab Centre in Abu Dhabi.
The wars in Yemen, Syria and Libya are also expected to be raised during the Crown Prince’s two days in the US capital. He is expected to brief members of congress on the UAE’s counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, its unilateral humanitarian efforts in the country and through the United Nations, and the Emirates’ intensified role in political negotiations to bring an end to the increasingly complex conflict.
Preparations are also under way in Washington and Riyadh to conclude investment and defence deals to cement their rekindled ties.
An arms deal with Riyadh, which includes systems that the Obama administration refused to sell to the kingdom because of differences over its campaign in Yemen, is being prepared by the Trump administration. US officials reportedly hope that deal, worth a reported US$300 billion (Dh1.1 trillion) over the next decade, will be ready to announce before Mr Trump’s departure for Riyadh or during his visit.
Washington also announced last week that it had approved a $2bn sale of missiles to the UAE for its Patriot defence systems. There will be up to a 90-day review process in the US congress, whose approval is also required. Because they are defensive systems, they are not expected to face any resistance, according to a source familiar with the discussions in congress.
Saudi officials hope to finalise a plan that Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly presented to Mr Trump during their White House meeting in March that would see the kingdom use a new investment fund to invest $200 billion in the US. The Wall Street Journal reported that Mr Trump asked for the bulk of the investments in infrastructure and industry to be made in the poorer Midwestern states that swung the election in his favour.
The deputy crown prince also offered US companies a preferential role in the Vision 2030 economic diversification strategy that relies on greater foreign investment in non-energy sectors of the Saudi economy.
In a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency, Prince Mohammed said Mr Trump’s visit and meetings with Gulf and Muslim leaders “will establish a new partnership in confronting extremism and terrorism”.
* Additional reporting by Associated Press