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US defence chief withholds Yemen promises in Riyadh rekindling

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday afternoon [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 April, 2017

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US defence chief Jim Mattis seeks to rekindle relations with Riyadh, despite offering no guarantees of greater support in the Yemen war.

The US wants to see a "strong Saudi Arabia", Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Wednesday, following talks with Saudi officials in Riyadh.

"It is in our interest to see a strong Saudi Arabia," the US defence chief said as he met Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, one of the most powerful men in Saudi Arabia.

Mattis - who is on his first official visit to the Middle East - hinted at a possible visit to the kingdom by President Donald Trump sometime this year.

He said his visit to the Saudi capital "could actually open the door possibly to bringing our president to Saudi Arabia".

Relations between Riyadh and Washington took a downward turn under Obama, due to the then president's reluctance to stop bloodshed in Syria and the signing of the nuclear accord with Iran.

Mattis' visit appears to be an attempt to mend ties with Riyadh, and show that the US will take a tougher line with Iran.

According to a US defence official quoted by Reuters, Mattis arrived in the kingdom on Tuesday afternoon to meet Saudi officials and understand "what are their priorities".

The unnamed official said that the ultra conservative kingdom had "felt marginalised" by the July 2015 nuclear deal, which Trump has described as the "worst deal ever".

The deal saw the lifting of international sanctions on Iran in exchange for guarantees that it would not pursue nuclear weapons capabilities.

Despite earlier expectations from officials and analysts, Mattis gave no indication that the US would increase support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen.

Such support would be of key interest to the Saudis, who have sought to send Tehran a strong message in Yemen by defeating the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

However, the Saudis have welcomed Trump's firmer stance on Iran, which has included the imposition of new sanctions in February over a ballistic missile test by Tehran.

Mohammed Bin Salman said Saudi Arabia and the US are working to counter the "malign activities of Iran" and restore stability "to the most important straits".

The US is currently monitoring Houthi activity along the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.

After his stay in Riyadh, Mattis will leave for Egypt on Thursday and then to Israel on Friday. 

This will be followed by a return to the Gulf Saturday, when he will hold talks in Qatar.

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