In Middle East, U.S. general hears concerns about American commitment

·3 min read
FILE PHOTO: Lieutenant General Kurilla testifies before Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington

By Phil Stewart

ABU DHABI (Reuters) - The new U.S. general overseeing American forces in the Middle East said allies were concerned about long-term U.S. commitment to the region, as he wrapped up a visit to the United Arab Emirates on Friday.

U.S. Army General Michael "Erik" Kurilla, who took over as head of Central Command last month, is compiling a 90-day assessment of the U.S. military's efforts in a region once at the core of a foreign policy now more focused on China, Russia and the war in Ukraine.

Friday's visit followed stops in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

"The tone in my engagements in Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and UAE was frank and stark; our partners are concerned about our long-term commitment to the region," Kurilla told reporters traveling with him.

In the Gulf, Washington has stoked tension with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi by failing to satisfy their concerns about regional rival Iran, for ending its support for their war in Yemen and slapping conditions on U.S. weapons sales.

Over time, the United States has also significantly reduced the number of troops in the region, including naval forces.

Mistrust in the Middle East more broadly has built up since the 2011 Arab uprisings when Gulf rulers were shocked at how the administration of President Barack Obama abandoned the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after a 30-year alliance, allowing him to fall and ignoring the concerns of Gulf rulers over the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Kurilla's visit to Cairo came less than four months after President Joe Biden's administration announced it would cut $130 million in military aid to Egypt over human rights concerns. It was a rare censure of a strategic ally that controls the Suez Canal.

Kurilla, who met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, stressed the United States was a dependable ally.

"I visited three countries with which we have strategic partnerships. My message in all three countries: the United States is a reliable partner here and this relationship is strong," Kurilla said.

In the United Arab Emirates, Kurilla met with de facto ruler Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, known as MbZ. Reuters has reported that Biden irked MbZ by not calling swiftly after the Houthis attacked UAE in January and by not responding more forcefully.

Kurilla said his assessment would include "gaps" in such relationships.

In Saudi Arabia, Kurilla held talks with military officials including Saudi Arabia's Deputy Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman. "The Kingdom is poised for the future and I look forward to a continued military partnership," he said.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was incensed by Biden's refusal to deal directly with him as the kingdom's de facto ruler because of the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A U.S. intelligence report implicated the prince, who denies any role.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by John Stonestreet)