US, Gulf allies to pursue joint fight against ISIS

Obama says US will also hold high-level economic talks with GCC nations on adjusting to lower oil prices, boosting ties

Mr Obama and Saudi Arabia's King Salman preparing for a group photo prior to the US summit with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders in Riyadh yesterday.
Mr Obama and Saudi Arabia's King Salman preparing for a group photo prior to the US summit with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders in Riyadh yesterday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

RIYADH • The United States and its Gulf partners yesterday pledged to continue working together to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and de-escalate other regional conflicts, US President Barack Obama said.

He also said concerns remain over Iran and economic issues, including oil.

"The United States and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) will launch a new high-level economic dialogue with a focus on adjusting to lower oil prices, increasing our economic ties and supporting GCC reforms as they work to provide jobs and opportunities to their young people and all of their citizens," Mr Obama said in remarks following the US-GCC summit in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

He said the United States would deter and confront aggression against Gulf Arab monarchies, which continue to have concerns about threats from Iran.

Mr Obama came to Saudi Arabia hoping to allay Gulf states' fears over Iranian influence and encourage them to douse sectarian tensions in an effort to confront the threat posed by ISIS.

"I reaffirmed the policy of the United States to use all elements of our power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and our partners," he said in Riyadh.

In his statement, Mr Obama said Gulf partners were committed to fighting ISIS, and de-escalating other regional conflicts such as Syria, where a truce is in tatters and peace talks in meltdown.

On what is likely his final presidential visit, Mr Obama was seeking to overcome recent tensions with Sunni Arab Gulf states rooted in US overtures to their regional rival, Shi'ite Iran.

Mr Obama's perceived tilt towards Iran has been a particular concern, with Gulf states worried that Teheran will be emboldened to seek a still bigger regional role after the lifting of sanctions under its landmark nuclear deal with major powers led by the US.

With ISIS suffering a series of recent setbacks in areas under its control in Syria and Iraq, Washington is also seeking more help from the oil-rich Gulf monarchies to keep up the pressure.

After talks with Saudi Arabia's King Salman the day before, Mr Obama posed yesterday for a summit photo with leaders of the six-nation GCC before heading into four hours of talks at a royal palace.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states belong to the US-led coalition that has been carrying out air strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq since mid-2014.

Mr Ben Rhodes, a close adviser to Mr Obama, said there were also "political steps that can be taken", as Iraq would need assistance to hold on to and rebuild areas reclaimed from ISIS.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter - in Riyadh with Mr Obama - on Wednesday urged his Gulf counterparts "to do more", a view echoed by Mr Obama.

GCC members were upset by Mr Obama's remarks in a magazine interview that appeared to cast them as "free-riders" in US security efforts and urged them to "share" the region with Teheran.

President Obama said neither the United States nor Arab Gulf nations had an interest in conflict with Iran.

He also urged Gulf countries to work together despite their differences, whether it was dealing with Iran or maintaining a stable, unified government within a country, such as in Iraq.

"If people are seeing themselves not as a citizen of a country but as a member of a particular branch of Islam, that is a recipe for countries falling apart," he told reporters.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2016, with the headline 'US, Gulf allies to pursue joint fight against ISIS'. Subscribe