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US working with Saudi Arabia on strategic military plans, general says

The Biden administration is leveraging the Pentagon to quietly rebuild trust with Riyadh in the wake of a very public dispute.
US Central Command Commander Gen. Michael Kurilla speaks at the 18th IISS Manama Dialogue, Manama, Bahrain, Nov. 19, 2022.

American military officials have been working behind the scenes to help counterparts in Saudi Arabia lay out a long-term vision for the kingdom’s national security, even as ties between the two governments remain strained, a top US general revealed Thursday.

“The Saudis are very interested in strategic plans with us,” Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, top commander of US forces in the Middle East, told reporters via conference call.

“Our strategic planners travel to the kingdom regularly to work with Saudi military leaders to build up their ideas for a long-term strategic vision,” said Kurilla, who leads US Central Command (CENTCOM).

Saudi Arabia is also set to release a national defense strategy and a national military strategy next year for the first time in its history, he said, though CENTCOM did not assist in drafting those plans, another defense official clarified to Al-Monitor.

The strategy documents, which have not yet been publicly confirmed by Saudi officials, will codify “the kingdom’s strategic vision for national security and regional security,” the general said. Kurilla called the decision “a critical step” in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s military modernization plans.

Why it matters: The Biden administration is leveraging the Pentagon’s know-how to help the kingdom meet its security goals in a bid to rebuild trust, even as the White House says it is reevaluating US relations with Riyadh.

The October announcement that OPEC+ would slash oil production drew rare pointed rebuke from the White House, but did not significantly disrupt regular meetings and bilateral training between the two countries’ militaries, Al-Monitor previously reported.

In May, the Pentagon’s third-highest official Colin Kahl expressed full support for the crown prince's defense modernization goals, though it’s not quite clear what tangibles Washington has been able to offer thus far.

Biden halted offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries shortly after taking office in response to widespread criticism over their militaries’ conduct in Yemen’s civil war.

Crown Prince and Prime Minister bin Salman has seemingly sought to publicly embarrass Biden, first with oil production decisions and again this month by rolling out a lavish welcome for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the United States' top strategic adversary.

Meanwhile, military officials at US Central Command have been quietly spearheading a diplomatic push to build up an informal regional defense coalition — one that can help countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates better defend against projectile attacks by Iran while reducing their dependency on US military presence.

What’s next: Kurilla’s command is moving ahead with plans to build out two additional experimental task forces — the Air Force Task Force 99 and Army Task Force 39 — to demonstrate to top brass in the Middle East the potential offered by commercially available unmanned technology linked with artificial intelligence.

The CENTCOM commander discussed those steps and plans for counter-drone weapons testing with Saudi Royal Armed Forces chief Fayyadh bin Hamed al-Ruwaili last month.

“It is an incredibly strong relationship,” Kurilla emphasized Thursday.

Know more: Read Jared Szuba’s report on the Navy’s latest moves to get a handle on smuggling in the Middle East’s waterways.

This story was updated with a comment from a US defense official clarifying that CENTCOM did not assist in the drafting of Saudi Arabia's national defense strategy.

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