RIYADH (AFP) – Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday he was “stunned” by the spread of Arab protests as he arrived in Saudi Arabia on a Gulf tour to boost Washington’s ties with regional allies.
Mullen’s visit comes as an unprecedented wave of revolts challenges Arab authoritarian regimes, notably in Bahrain and Yemen, after uprisings toppled rulers in Tunisia and Egypt.
“It’s stunning to me that it’s moved so quickly,” America’s highest-ranking military officer said of the revolts.
“We’ve talked about the underlying issues for a long time, but it’s the speed with which this is happening,” he told reporters.
Mullen said the purpose of his mission is to “reassure, discuss and understand what is going on,” adding that the “trip was scheduled for other reasons but as it turns out the context has changed.”
“Part of what I want to accomplish is to reassure our friends and also just listen to what’s on their mind,” President Barack Obama’s senior military adviser said.
“I think the dominant issue of the day is going to be stability in the Middle East.”
Saudi neighbour Bahrain, which was rocked last week by deadly protests, will top the agenda of his talks with military officials during his two-day visit to the oil-rich, ultra-conservative kingdom.
Six people were officially reported killed in Bahrain last week, raising pressure on the Sunni Muslim ruling dynasty to talk with the Shiite-led opposition.
Bahrain’s opposition has called for a large protest on Tuesday to press the ruling family there to engage in negotiations for reform, as protesters camp out in the capital’s Pearl Square.
Mullen said it was “absolutely critical” that governments and their people resolve differences peacefully.
“We certainly would like to see whatever happens happen in a non-violent way,” he said. “That where there are differences, they be resolved non violently. And that governments and their people figure this out.”
The Sunni Saudi kingdom has expressed alarm at Iran’s nuclear programme and the Shiite Islamic republic’s growing influence in the Middle East, especially in Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon which have sizeable Shiite communities.
Iran is expected also to be on the agenda of Mullen’s talks with Saudi officials, including with Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz.
Foreign ministers of the Gulf monarchies signalled support for Bahrain’s monarchy on Thursday in a joint statement, saying “our security is a collective responsibility and there is no question of accepting foreign interference.”
Bahrain is strategically vital to Washington as it hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which protects the Gulf’s maritime oil routes supplying US operations in Afghanistan.
Mullen is also expected to in Qatar on Monday before travelling to the United Arab Emirates and then on to Djibouti and Kuwait where protesters have also taken to the streets in recent days.
In Kuwait he will attend a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the end of the Gulf war and the liberation of the oil-rich emirate from Iraqi occupation.
Saudi Arabia is a long-standing US ally and key regional player in the war on terrorism, with Washington announcing in October a massive contract to supply Riyadh with fighter jets and helicopters.
Information that Saudi Arabia collects on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), operating out of Yemen — where protests have also raged for a week — has also become critical to alert Western governments to potential threats.