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Pentagon chief meets Saudi king after US troop deployment in Gulf kingdom

Esper landed in Riyadh after a visit to Afghanistan [Getty]

Date of publication: 22 October, 2019

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The US defence secretary met with Saudi King Salman and powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a visit to the Gulf kingdom.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper discussed "strategic cooperation" with Saudi King Salman on Tuesday, days after Washington ordered thousands of soldiers to the kingdom as tensions fester with Iran.

The meeting in Riyadh, where Esper arrived late on Monday after an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, also took in defence issues and the current situation in the region, the official SPA news agency said.

The agency later added that Esper had met powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also defence minister. 

The two discussed "military and defence cooperation", it said.

On October 11, the Pentagon said it was deploying new US troops to Saudi Arabia after Riyadh asked for reinforcements following a mid-September drone and missile attack on Saudi oil plants, which Washington blames on Iran.

Read more: After the Aramco attack: A Middle East one step closer to its '1914 moment'

Esper has said that two fighter squadrons and additional missile defence batteries were being sent to Saudi Arabia, bringing to about 3,000 the total number of US troops deployed to the kingdom since last month.

US President Donald Trump said Riyadh had agreed to pay for the deployment, however the SPA report said only that the military assistance comes in the context of "historic relations and (a) well-established partnership".

The US official said earlier this month that since May the United States has increased its 70,000-strong presence in the Middle East by 14,000 personnel, most of those deployed to the Gulf region in response to Iran's actions.

"The US military has on alert additional army, navy, marine and air force units to quickly provide increased capability in the region if necessary," he said Friday.

He also urged US allies in Europe to follow America's lead with their own defensive assets "for regional stability."

The September 14 attack knocked out two major facilities of state oil giant Aramco in Abqaiq and Khurais, roughly halving Saudi Arabia's oil production.

Washington condemned the attacks as an "act of war" but neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States have overtly retaliated.

Tensions have soared in the Gulf in recent months with a series of attacks on oil infrastructure and tankers, raising fears of war. Iran has denied any involvement.

The latest incident involved an Iranian oil tanker which was struck by two separate explosions off the Saudi port of Jeddah earlier this month.

The state-owned National Iranian Tanker Company confirmed details about the attack, however denied reports that the vessel was struck by missiles fired from Saudi Arabia.

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