Clinton to launch 'strategic forum' with Gulf
Riyadh, March 30, 2012
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Saudi Arabia today for talks to weigh limited options available to end the violence in Syria and launch a "strategic forum" with Gulf allies against a backdrop of growing tensions with Iran.
The world's main superpower and its top oil exporter have been strategic allies since the 1940s, but disagreements showed up last year over how to tackle the Arab popular uprisings.
Although the two states have mended that rift, differences persist over both regional issues and energy policy, amid US concerns that Saudi Arabia might cut oil output if consumer countries release emergency reserves, neutralising their effort to bring down oil prices that have soared in recent months.
Topping the agenda at the talks involving Clinton, King Abdullah, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal and other senior Gulf diplomats will be the situation in Syria, which Riyadh sees as a key to the future of the Middle East.
Backed by Western countries, Saudi Arabia has spearheaded Arab efforts to press Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to end his bloody suppression of a year-old popular uprising and step aside.
The Saudis now want to see stronger action against Assad, including the arming of opposition groups, something that the United States is reluctant to do for fear of being drawn into a messy civil war.
However, it is the wider context of a regional struggle between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Muslim Iran that will underpin discussions over the fallout from last year's Arab Spring uprisings.
In October, the US said it had uncovered an Iranian-backed plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Iran denied any involvement in the alleged conspiracy, which was interpreted in Riyadh as part of a broad campaign being waged by Tehran against Saudi interests.
The launch of a new "strategic forum" between the US and allied Gulf countries, to be announced during Clinton's visit, is designed to present a united front, analysts say.
Clinton had no meeting slated with Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi. But oil-consuming nations are concerned that the kingdom might offset a planned release of oil stocks by the United States, Britain and France by reducing its own crude output.
Diplomats and industry sources said Western countries may want Clinton to seek reassurance that the Saudis will not undercut their bid to cut their fuel costs. Oil prices have risen sharply since the start of the year, at one point breaking $128 a barrel, largely because of expanded sanctions imposed on major oil exporter Iran aimed at slowing its nuclear programme. - Reuters
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