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Saudis voice optimism about relations with US under Trump

Saudis voice optimism about relations with US under Trump

BONN, Germany — Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister says his country expects to have a productive relationship with the Trump administration and is optimistic that U.S.-Saudi co-operation can overcome challenges in the Middle East.

“We look forward to working with the Trump administration on all issues,” Adel al-Jubeir said. “We are very very optimistic about our ability to resolve issues in the region.”

Jubeir made the comments on Thursday at the top of a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is on his first overseas trip as America’s top diplomat.

Jubeir did not elaborate but Saudi Arabia has deep concerns about Iran’s increasing assertiveness in the region and he and Tillerson were to attend larger meetings on the crises in Yemen and Syria on the sidelines of a gathering of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 world powers in nearby Bonn.

In a meeting on Yemen with Jubeir and the foreign ministers of Britain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, Tillerson did not respond to a reporter’s question about the Trump administration’s proposed travel ban for citizens of seven mainly Muslim nations. Indeed, he made no substantive remarks in the presence of reporters, limiting his comments with to polite chatter about his past business travel experience as CEO of Exxon Mobil.

He will face a blizzard of questions about the U.S. administration’s foreign policy from nervous Asian and European allies. And there will be penetrating inquiries from America’s watchful rivals like Russia and China, who will be eager to seize on any miscues or gaffes for their own advantage.

Tillerson also will be playing defence amid the chaos and turmoil caused by the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misleading officials about his contacts with Russia.

In Bonn, the Cold War capital of the former West Germany, he will come face-to-face later Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a seasoned and wily diplomat who sparred, often successfully, with past U.S. secretaries of state.

President Donald Trump chose Tillerson for the job in part because of his business experience and relationship with Russia while he was at Mobil. His meeting with Lavrov will be a first test of whether that business acumen — which led to great profits for Exxon and Russian President Vladimir Putin bestowing a friendship award upon him — can translate into success in a high-stakes diplomatic arena.

Tillerson has taken a low-key and reserved approach in his first two weeks on the job and declined the opportunity to speak with reporters travelling with him aboard his plane to Germany. He has yet to comment publicly on developments with Russia, its alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election or its actions in Syria and Ukraine.

At his confirmation hearing last month, he voiced conventional concerns about Russia’s behaviour and said they should be addressed by projecting a forceful and united front. Like others in the administration, he hasn’t been specific about how to repair damaged ties or whether doing so might involve lifting U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

U.S. officials accompanying Tillerson said they didn’t expect him to stray from well-honed U.S. demands for Russia to abide by commitments it has made, along with appeals for co-operation in areas in which the two nations have common interests. These include the fight against the Islamic State group.

Nonetheless, the eyes of many will be focused on Tillerson’s meeting with Lavrov for clues as to how the Trump administration intends to deal with Russia, particularly given the revelations about Flynn and the various U.S. investigations into Russian activity before the U.S. presidential election.

In Bonn, Tillerson will also meet privately and in small groups with the top diplomats of Britain, Turkey, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Argentina and Brazil. One meeting focuses on the worsening situation in Yemen, where a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition is battling Shiite rebels believed to be supported by Iran. Another concerns Syria’s violence.

Tillerson will be hoping to reassure his European colleagues of the Trump administration’s commitment to trans-Atlantic institutions like NATO and the European Union. It’s a similar mission to that of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who is in Brussels and will attend a security conference in Munich this weekend. There, Mattis will be joined by Vice-President Mike Pence.

Matthew Lee, The Associated Press

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