RIYADH - U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is in Saudi Arabia, his first stop on a sweeping tour across the Middle East and the Horn of Africa to discuss America’s role in regional security.
Speaking to reporters while on route to Riyadh, Mattis called for the crisis in Saudi Arabia’s neighbor, Yemen, to go before a United Nations-brokered negotiating team in order to “politically” resolve the country’s raging civil war.
The conflict in Yemen is often viewed as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials have signaled that U.S. President Donald Trump wants to further strengthen strategic relations with the Saudis, who have been supporting the fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Mattis said the United States has seen “Iranian supplied missiles being fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia.” He vowed to work with U.S. allies to help the conflict, which has killed thousands of Yemenis, come to an end.
After meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and other officials, Mattis will visit top political and military leaders in Egypt, Israel and Qatar this week.
Experts say those leaders are eager to size up the new American administration’s take on their regional rival, Iran.
“In fact, when I was in Saudi Arabia in February, their top leaders said that they were relieved that the Obama administration was no longer in power, in part because they felt like President [Barack] Obama was too soft on Iran,” Brian Katulis of the Washington-based Center for American Progress, told VOA.
Officials say Mattis will also discuss how regional allies can help stabilize war-torn Iraq and Syria, where local forces backed by the U.S.-led coalition are battling Islamic State militants.
Only US military base in Africa
The defense secretary will then travel to Djibouti, home to Camp Lemonnier--the United States’ only military base in Africa — and where China is also constructing its first overseas military base.
Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy DeLeon told VOA the Chinese base is a bid to increase Beijing's “heavy presence” in the Horn of Africa.
“It’s not traditional Western soft power, where it is a humanitarian mission, because China’s got a clear interest in the resources that are there,” DeLeon said.
While many of the people in the region are poor, the lands and coastal floors are rich with petroleum, gold and natural gas.
DeLeon said Chinese interest in developing some of the poorest areas in the region could be “constructive,” especially as areas in the region are battling a destructive drought.