Saudi Dep. DM meets Burns, Hagel on U.S. visit

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Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan, on his debut trip to Washington in the post, met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the State Department on Wednesday.

He will hold meetings at the Pentagon on Thursday, beginning with an honor cordon hosted by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Defense Department said.

Deputy Secretary Burns and Prince Salman discussed “our shared commitment to further strengthening our security relationship,” the State Department said. They also “discussed regional challenges, such as Syria, and the importance of regional cooperation in addressing common political and security challenges.’

A former senior US official who works on the region, speaking not for attribution, said Prince Salman was making the rounds on his first official trip to Washington in the Deputy Defense Minister job, and that it was thought he was also purchasing more big-ticket defense equipment, including F-15 aircraft, and Apache helicopters. Prince Salman, the younger half-brother of longtime former Saudi envoy to the U.S. Prince Bandar, assumed the deputy defense minister post in the Saudi Kingdom last August. In his late 30s, Prince Salman has past experience in Washington, however, having worked in the embassy here for nearly a decade.

Prince Sultan’s visit “is a getting-to-know-you occasion,” Simon Henderson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The contrived substance will probably be details of the overall arms package agreed a couple of years ago.”

“On Salman bin Sultan, don’t forget he was Bandar’s deputy at [the Saudi intelligence service] GID and deeply involved in Syria,” Henderson said.

Prince Salman’s visit comes ahead of President Obama’s trip to Riyadh next week. The White House announced last month that Obama would add a trip to the Saudi Kingdom to the end of his trip next week to the Netherlands for the nuclear security summit, Belgium (NATO and US/EU summit), and the Vatican.

Obama, in Saudi Arabia, will meet King Abdullah, as well as other GCC leaders, Tamara Coffman Wittes said Wednesday. Items to be discussed on the visit include Syria, Iran, and the Middle East peace process, she said.

“Iran will be high on the agenda,” Wittes, the director of the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East studies, told journalists on a call hosted by the Israel Policy Forum Wednesday.

“Syria, from the perspective of the Gulf, will be on the agenda,” Wittes said. “From the White House side, the Middle East peace process is also very high on the agenda, because both Abu Mazen and Netanyahu, as they face difficult choices, are both looking to see what kind of expectations [there are] from the region and that will affect their calculus quite significantly.”

“Iran is the agenda item #1, #2 and #3 in the Obama-Abdullah meeting, at least from a Saudi perspective,” the Washington Institute’s Henderson said.

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, foreground, meets with Saudi Arabian Deputy Minister of Defense Prince Salman bin Sultan, right, in Bahrain Dec. 6, 2013. The two met to discuss issues of mutual importance. By Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo.)