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[RIYADH] US President Donald Trump, facing growing criticism over his move to block immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, held talks with two prominent Arab leaders on Sunday to bolster ties and discuss anti-terrorism efforts in the Middle East.
Mr Trump spoke by phone with Saudi Arabia's King Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed. The call with the Saudi monarch lasted more than an hour, according to a senior Saudi person who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss its details. In addition to combating terrorism and boosting economic ties, the two leaders agreed to tackle Iran's "destabilising regional activities" in the region, the White House said.
The remarks help shed more light on Mr Trump's Middle East policy by signaling he would improve ties with the Gulf Arab monarchies that felt shunned by the US under the Obama administration, which focused on clinching a nuclear deal with Iran. The new US president, however, stopped short of vowing to repeal the accord, saying he agreed with the Saudi king on "the importance of rigorously enforcing" it, according to the White House.
"If you are the incoming US president, you will have a huge advantage with the Saudis and the Gulf states - just by not being Obama," Crispin Hawes, London-based managing director at Teneo Intelligence, said in a phone interview.
"The impression Trump gives is that he sees political relationships in a bilateral framework. The Saudi-US relationship on every observable level functions very well. At a starting point if you are King Salman, this is all good."
Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose capital is Abu Dhabi, are engaged in proxy confrontations with Shiite-ruled Iran in some of the Middle East's bloodiest conflicts. The Islamic Republic was one of the seven countries included in the 90-day immigration ban on Friday, the others being Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya.
King Salman and Mohamed bin Zayed made no public comment on Mr Trump's immigration ban. Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's holiest cities - Mecca and Medina.
Mr Trump asked the two leaders to help secure safe zones in conflict areas in the region to support the displaced. King Salman also agreed to back "other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts," the White House said.
The two leaders "agreed on the importance of strengthening joint efforts to fight the spread of radical Islamic terrorism and also on the importance of working jointly to address challenges to regional peace and security, including the conflicts in Syria and Yemen," the White House said.
Saudi Arabia is one of the US's oldest allies in the Middle East. Relations suffered briefly after 15 Saudi nationals took part in the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. Saudis and other Gulf Arabs also criticised former President Barack Obama for not offering enough support in the showdown with Iran.
Saudi officials, however, have welcomed Mr Trump's election and praised his energy policies as well as his choice of Rex Tillerson, the former chairman of Exxon Mobil Corp, as secretary of State. The kingdom is considering New York as a possible venue of the share sale of its oil giant Aramco, in what could be the world's biggest initial public offering.
"The Saudis welcomed his appointment," Teneo's Hawes said.
"Tillerson is someone who has tremendous diplomatic experience in the region in the broadest sense of the world. He is a known quantity. Right now, I think this is going as well as Saudi policymakers could have hoped."
Mr Trump's call with the king also tackled how the late al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, aimed to destroy the kingdom's ties with the US by recruiting Saudis to launch the 9-11 attacks, according to the senior Saudi person. Bin Laden also wanted to use the attacks to expand and recruit for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, the person said.
Saudi Arabia will boost its participation in the international coalition against Islamic State and other terrorist groups, the Saudi person said.
Mr Trump has ordered a review of US strategy to combat Islamic State fighters operating in Iraq and Syria. In a memo Saturday, Mr Trump ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a plan within 30 days to eliminate the terror group. It's unclear how or whether the strategy would deviate from the Obama administration's efforts, which has involved deploying US special forces, supplying and equipping local armies, and a coalition air campaign.
Also over the weekend, a US serviceman was killed in a raid against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, the first such loss since Mr Trump took office.
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